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Looking for Safe Harbor

Teen Prostitution in America

by DAVID ROSEN

It’s time for New York Governor David Paterson to sign the Safe Harbor Act for Exploited Children.  The enabling bills have already passed both the state Assembly (A.5258-c) and Senate (S.3175-c), and now it is on the governor’s proverbial desk for passage. 

The act will end the widespread practice of arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating those 15-years and younger charged with prostitution.  In addition, the Act requires the state to establish a variety of community-based services to help young people.  These services include: “housing, diagnostic assessment, individual case management, medical services including substance abuse services, counseling and therapeutic services, educational services including life skills services and planning services to successfully transition residents back to the community.”  This support is critical so that these children can reclaim their young lives.

Traditionally, zealous police and prosecutors have used the fear of jail to not only punish underage sex workers, but to coerce them into testifying against their pimp.  This has been an abusive and less-then-successful strategy that leads to the double victimization of the young person.  First,  underage youths are mistreated by parents, pimps and johns; then they are criminalized by the legal system ostensibly sworn to safeguard them.  The victimization of youthful prostitutes represents a failed policy that New York and other states should finally end. 

Governor Paterson, get out your pen and do the right thing.

* * *

Children and adolescents are a very vulnerable segment of the American population.   Estimates vary considerably as to the number of abused and runaway children throughout the country.  In 2006, the National Runaway Switchboard estimated that there were between 1.3 and 2.8 million runaway and homeless youths in America. 

Things seem to have only gotten worse over the last few years.  Four years earlier, in 2002, the Department of Justice estimated “MART” children, those missing, abused, runaway and throwaway, at 1.7 million.  Nearly three-quarters of these children were “endangered” from physical threats, drugs or sexual abuse while missing.  Of these endangered children, it further estimates that 27,300 (or 2%) had spent some period of time that they were missing with a sexually exploitative person and another 14,900 (or 1%) were sexually assaulted or someone attempted to sexually assault then while a runaway.

Teens and other young people flee their family for a variety of reasons.  Many feel or are truly abused by the parents and other family members and flee in self defense.  Others are rejected by their families due to personality difference, unacceptable sexual orientation or gender identity factors.  And still others are seduced by the apparent excitement of the bigger world that they feel is more attractive then their own experience. 

One can wonder how America’s eroding economy, especially the disproportionate toll it takes on poor and working-class families, will further intensify family dislocation, child flight and resulting suffering of all involved.

The number of children involved in prostitution is equally difficult to determine.  In part, this difficulty arises from two critical issues.  First, there is no standard definition of prostitution. Second, governmental statistics are based only on “reported” incidence and many of the sexual encounters of young people, whether coerced or “voluntary”, are not reported.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children defines prostitution as follows:

Prostitution of children, therefore, is defined as the sexual exploitation of a child for remuneration in cash or in-kind, usually but not always organized by an intermediary such as a procurer, family member, pimp, or madame.

It points-out that “the vast majority of youth involved in prostitution are girls, although some service providers see an increase in the number of boys.”  It notes that the average age most girls get involved in prostitution is at 14-years and the median age of involvement is 15.5-years.   However, it reports child prostitutes being picked up by police at only 11 or 12-years and even 9-years of age.  It stresses that child prostitutes come from throughout the country, inner-cities, suburbs and small-towns, and from all walks-of-life.  But it notes, “larger cities are more likely to have a higher proportion of boys involved in prostitution”.  [Department of Justice, NIS-MART, 2002]

Another aspect of this type of prostitution is what the U.S. Department of State identified as trafficking in persons.  As it reports, “it is estimated that 14,500 to 17,500 people, primarily women and children, are trafficked to the U.S. annually.”  Trafficking victims come predominately from Asia, Latin American and Eastern Europe.  Leading destinations for sex traffickers are New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas.  [Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report, 2006]

There is a second, and apparently growing, form of prostitution that is apparently “voluntary” and involves the exchange of “favors” like dope, money or other presents.  A study by Jessica Edwards, of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, found that an estimated 650,000 American teenagers exchange sex for favors.  More surprising, more boys were likely to sell themselves than girls. 

She found that close to 4 percent of her sample of more than 13,000 U.S. teens she sampled in grades 7 through 12 reported having prostituted themselves.  More disturbing, about 15 percent of boys and 20 percent of girls who prostituted themselves reported that they had had a sexually transmitted infection, compared with 2 percent of boys and 4 percent of girls in the group who had never exchanged sex for money or drugs.  [Journal of Sexually Transmitted Infections, 2006 v. 82]

Youthful prostitution is a complex social phenomenon.   It involves both coerced and “voluntary” exchange of sexual favors for something of value.  Such prostitution can involve either a young person with an adult (including a parent as a pimp) or another youth.  However played out, child prostitution remains an exploitative relation.

* * *

Police arrest of child prostitutes, traffickers and johns often capture media attention.  A recent headline grabber involved the 55-year-old billionaire money manager, Jeffrey Epstein, who received an 18-month sentence for hiring underage Palm Beach, FL, girls for erotic massages and sex; he was also required to register as a sex offender.

Between June 18th and 23rd, the FBI undertook a nationwide crack-down on reported child sex traffickers.  Initiated as a publicity stunt to mark the fifth anniversary of the Innocence Lost National Initiative, the FBI Crimes Against Children Unit coordinated a national campaign that lead to “the arrest of 356 individuals and the recovery of 21 children”.  The effort took place in 16 cities across the country, from Boston to Miami to San Francisco and from Atlantic City to Detroit to Kansas. 

The Innocence Lost program was launched in 2003 and claims that, as of June 2008, it has “rescued” more than 400 child victims and led to the conviction of 308 individuals who exploited children through prostitution.

Police busts of prostitution rings involving underage children are reported by local media almost daily.  These stories suggest the scope of what is an epidemic crisis of American family life. 

A recent episode in New York involving a Mexican-American mother and her sons who rang a trafficiing ring in Queens illustrates the limits of such reporting.  While it captured front-page notoriety, far less attention was given to the estimated 5,000 teen sex workers throughout the city and the more than 100 underage prostitutes arrested in Queens in 2007.

Cities across the country are attempting to deal with the explosive growth of child and youth prostitutes.  In New York, for example, a pilot program, Operation Guardian, was set up in 2005 through the Queens DA’s office.  It provides twenty-four hour support along with a residential placement facility providing shelter and services to young people victims of commercial sexual exploitation. 

In Nevada, youthful repeat runaways and probation violators are often sent to the state reformatory in Caliente, about 140 miles north of Las Vegas.  However, one Las Vegas family court judge, William Voy, decries the fate of child sex workers, "These girls are victims, and should be treated as such," and he often sends them to a local group safe house.  Voy warns that the city doesn’t have nearly enough services to help these kids.

* * *

New York and other states continue to prosecute exploited child sex workers.  The Safe Harbor Act is intended to end this practice.  However, the act, and similar ones in California and Washington, has a number of significant limitations that will likely go unaddressed if Governor Paterson signs the bill.

First, the act contradicts one critical feature of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.  Under the federal law, sex trafficking is defined as commercial sex act that is induced by force, fraud, or coercion and the person under 18-years is coerced into engaging in such behavior.  The proposed New York law is designed to assist young people 15-years and younger.  It thus not only fails to meet federal trafficking requirements, but also does not comply with New York State age-of-consent laws that specify sexual consent at 17-years.

Second, the helpful services to be offered exploited young people would be provided whether they are “accessed voluntarily, as a condition of an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal issued in criminal court.”  The kids picked up in a prostitution bust would be forced to accept state services whether they want them or not.  This might be the only way to assist some truly troubled kids.  But without strengthening "person in need of supervision" (PINS) protections, the young person might feel that they do not have ability to advocate for their own interests.  Thus, the intervention will only aggregate the sense of betrayal that drove the kid to the streets in the first place.  

As Elizabeth Anne Wood argues on her valuable blog, “Sex in the Public Square”: “This bill makes an important step in the direction of humane treatment for young people in desperate circumstances, but we need to continue to work to solve the problems that lead teens to run away in the first place.”

Wood and others make painfully clear, without addressing the underlying crisis resulting from the ongoing disintegration of the American family, the flood of lost and abused children will likely only increase.  As with America’s failing health-care system, without a strong preventive and interventionist approach, one that supports and respects those in need, the consequence and not the cause of the crisis of child sex exploitation will never be addressed. 

DAVID ROSEN can be reached at drosen@ix.netcom.com