Over the last year, law-enforcement officials have noted a marked increase in teen prostitution across the country, Newsweek reports. A government-sponsored study puts the figure in the hundreds of thousands, but law-enforcement agencies and advocacy groups are alarmed by the trend lines: the kids are getting younger. The FBI says the average age of a new recruit is just 13, and some are as young as 9. While the vast majority of teen prostitutes today are runaways, illegal immigrants and children of poor urban areas, a growing number come from middle-class homes. “Compared to three years ago, we’ve seen a 70 percent increase in kids from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds, many of whom have not suffered mental, sexual or physical abuse,” says Frank Barnaba of the Paul & Lisa Program, which works with the Justice Department and the FBI in tracking exploited kids. “Everyone thinks they are runaways with drug problems from the inner city,” says Andy Schmidt, a Minneapolis detective who helped bust a major prostitution ring. “It’s not true. This could be your kid.”
Newsweek says that local, state and federal officials are starting to clamp down on the crime, which is still treated as a minor offense in many cities. The FBI, working with the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children, recently identified 13 cities—including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, Chicago, Miami, Minneapolis and Dallas—with juvenile-prostitution problems. In Atlanta, prosecutors used racketeering laws to bust a teen-prostitution ring and win heavy sentences for the flamboyant pimps who ran it. In Detroit, a five-state prostitution operation was uncovered when one of the teenage victims pleaded for help at a shopping mall. In the last two months, there have been teen-prostitution busts in Stockton, Calif.; Ypsilanti, Mich., and McColl, S.C.
The FBI has launched the Innocence Lost National Initiative, a program to help states and cities go after pimps who prey on teenage girls. Congress has approved $4 million to combat the problem of juvenile prostitution and other forms of child sex exploitation. The Justice Department is trying to get a better fix on the scope of the problem. “Ten years ago you didn’t see this happening,” says Bob Flores, who heads the department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “We’ve got kids in every major city and in suburbia all over the place being prostituted.” At a conference on missing and exploited children last fall, President George W. Bush talked about the threat of “girls and boys [who] are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor.”
Child advocates are concerned that pimps are increasingly targeting girls at local malls, a place parents consider a haven for kids to gather after school and on weekends. At many malls, pimps pick out girls who appear socially awkward or lonely, and set out to make them feel special.