By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008
NEW YORK -- The girl is very slight, pretty, with glasses, nervously fingering the blue and gold beads on a bracelet she made herself.
She seems like a typical shy high school kid. Little about her suggests the tortured story she tells: At 14 she ran away from sexual abuse at home and met a 24-year-old guy who seemed like he wanted to be her boyfriend -- until he told her he wanted to be her pimp.
"I was like, wow," recalled the girl, now 16, though she looks younger. She was shocked, but desperate, she said. "At the time I needed a place to sleep, so I was like, 'Fine, I'll go along with it.' "
On and off for the next two years, she said, she traded sex for cash, under the control of several different men who took most of the money for themselves. Her work as a child prostitute caused her to be arrested in March and placed in detention.
"The whole thing makes me sick to my stomach," said the girl, who did not want her name to be used, like several others who worked as prostitutes and gave interviews for this article. "Most of the time we do not have the right to say yes or no."
Now New York is struggling with the question of how to treat young girls who are involved in prostitution. Are they criminals -- or child abuse victims?
Gov. David A. Paterson (D) is considering signing a groundbreaking bill that would divert young girls arrested for prostitution to social programs rather than punishing them.
The bill, known as the Safe Harbor Act, stipulates that the first time girls 15 and younger are arrested for prostitution, they should be designated "persons in need of supervision," not delinquents, and get counseling and a safe house to protect them from pimps.
Advocates say the bill helps to redress an inequity in state law, which sets the age of consent for sex at 17 but sets no age limits on the crime of prostitution, so that if a 12-year-old is paid for sex, even if she turns the money over to a pimp, she can be arrested, charged with an act of juvenile delinquency, and prosecuted.
"This law is going to protect children who mostly come from broken or dysfunctional families, who have either been enticed or coerced into commercial sex, who need help," said state Assemblyman William Scarborough, a Democrat from Queens who sponsored the bill. "We will surely spend much more on these children if we do not get them out of this life."
But prosecutors have argued that it is necessary to hold the threat of jail over young girls to encourage them to testify against pimps.
And the administration of New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg opposes the bill, saying that the best way to keep girls from running away from services is to keep them in the criminal system.
"Legal leverage is the best way to provide services," said John Feinblatt, the mayor's criminal justice coordinator.
Across the country, cities and states are grappling with this issue. Las Vegas has decided to arrest and detain kids to keep them safe. Boston considers them child abuse victims and generally does not charge them but treats them. San Francisco has a hybrid model of arresting girls and then diverting them to services.
These questions arise because incidences of very young girls being coerced or forced into prostitution have become alarmingly common, according to law enforcement agencies, researchers and advocates. The age girls most frequently enter prostitution is between 12 and 14 years old, according to a University of Pennsylvania study, which also estimated there could be several hundred thousand youth being paid for sex across the country.
And although prostitution in New York has largely been chased from the Times Square area, the streetwalker culture -- often built on young girls -- is thriving in poor neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.
"It's a huge, huge problem," said Kenneth Kaiser, an assistant director at the FBI, which has launched a special task force, Innocence Lost, to arrest pimps and help children forced into prostitution. "You've got young children, 12, 13, 14 -- these are innocent victims nobody ever hears about."
Another young, former sex worker is trying to change that. With sad, long-lashed brown eyes and a smile that lights up her face, she speaks publicly about her history in prostitution and has advocated passage of the bill.
At 15, she said, she was an honor student at Manhattan's Art and Design High School but left home to escape her parents' alcoholism and abuse. She ended up in a group home, she said, where she tried to commit suicide -- but no one even noticed.
Then she met a pimp, she said.
She said he told her, " 'I'm going to be your everything. I'm going to be your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, your best friend. I'm going to take care of you, I'm going to love you.' "
She was inducted into a world with the trappings of family -- a girl often calls her pimp "Daddy," his friends "uncles-in-law," his other girls "wives-in-law." But this world also has its own brutal hierarchy: If a girl looks another pimp in the eye, that pimp has the right to kidnap her. When her pimp was jailed, he bequeathed her to an "uncle-in-law," a "guerrilla pimp" who used violence. She said one of his tactics was to hold a hot iron so close to her arm that she could feel the steam melt her skin.
There were beatings, a kidnapping, a gang rape, she said, but she was always put back to work. "I felt at that point that my soul was dying. You're just going through something that's so unimaginable you just can't even think, you just can't even feel."
Then she was referred to Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, a nonprofit group that helps about 200 commercially sexually exploited girls each year, and is perhaps the best model in the state for delivering services and creating the safe and nurturing atmosphere envisioned in the Safe Harbor bill.
"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.