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N.Y. Struggles to Aid Child Prostitutes

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S. met a pimp and entered prostitution when she was 15 years old and living in a group home, she said. Now 21, she is a development assistant and outreach worker at Girls Education and Mentoring Service, a Harlem center for girls who have been commercially sexually exploited.Audio by Robin Shulman/The Washington PostPhotos by Helayne Seidman

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"Sweetie, let's see your report card," said Rachel Lloyd, the founder and director, to one of her girls on a recent afternoon. Lloyd read aloud a string of A's. "I'm very proud of you," she said.

Lloyd, who years ago worked as a prostitute, oversees a staff of 19 to provide counseling, tutoring and job training, along with classes in subjects such as cooking and yoga. She will do anything for the girls: go searching the streets at night when they disappear, confront their pimps, and give them Christmas parties, baby showers and the other missing rituals of family. Sometimes it's enough to help a girl leave her pimp. Sometimes it's not.

"One of the girls called me on Mother's Day," Lloyd said. "She said, 'I want to come by, but it's like going to church. It makes me want to do better, but I feel wack about where I am in my life.' "

Research shows the girls in Lloyd's program are likely to have certain things in common. A study by the New York state Office of Children & Family Services found that about 85 percent of the girls in prostitution were the subject of an open child welfare case, often because of abuse or neglect, and that 75 percent had been in foster care.

Their numbers seem to be growing. Katherine Mullen, a New York lawyer with the Legal Aid Society who represents youth involved in prostitution, said that a decade ago she might come across perhaps two such children under 16 in a year. Now she represents about 200 a year, many of them 12 and 13 years old, and this year she represented two 11-year-olds.

These girls are likely to come from the country's poorest urban neighborhoods, said Kirsten Widner, a fellow at Emory University's law school. She said they may have been caught in a changing profile of local crime that has yet to be fully assessed: At some point in recent years, the neighborhood drug dealer might have realized that it's more lucrative to sell neighborhood girls.

"The word on the street is they can sell a packet of drugs once, they can sell a person many, many times, so it's a better business model," Widner said.


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