Escaping “The Life”


The U.S. legal system is slowly coming to realize that many underage sex workers are victims of exploitation, not juvenile delinquents.

The King of Prostitution wears a black polyester robe. His kingdom is a windowless, white-painted courtroom in midtown Manhattan, and his subjects are the men, women and children of the night.

On a hot Tuesday afternoon in June, one of those children steps up to the defendant's table and faces Judge Richard Weinberg. The muscular young woman is just 16, with full, glossy lips, blunt-cut bangs and long black hair. She was picked up on a charge of loitering for prostitution.

Her Legal Aid attorney, who will represent dozens like her before the court today, asks the judge if she can plead to disorderly conduct, and thus receive counseling instead of jail time. The judge agrees, then asks the young woman a series of questions to make sure she understands the consequences of her plea.

“Have you discussed this case with your attorney?” asks Weinberg.

“Yes,” says the girl in a baritone voice that betrays that the gender of her birth is male.

The judge, however, does not blink. He's seen it all before. In fact, although the rap sheet in front of him and the male voice make it clear the “she” is technically a “he,” Weinberg continues to refer to the defendant using female pronouns out of, he explains later, an effort to inject “a little humanity” into the court proceedings.

Judge Weinberg estimates that he sees 80 percent of the prostitution cases in Manhattan ?-which is why he jokes he's the “King”?at the Midtown Community Court (MCC), which was established by the Center for Court Innovation in 1993. MCC is one of a growing number of law enforcement initiatives to address underage prostitution in a less punitive, more constructive manner.

Instead of incarcerating kids in the sex trade, Weinberg tends to order counseling. And instead of just handing the child a list of names for providers that's likely to end up in the trash, MCC offers what Weinberg calls “a full menu” of social services upstairs, including individual and group counseling, job training and drug treatment.

Many criminal justice professionals and jurists like Weinberg are slowly learning how to help these kids. But in an era of budget cuts, getting police and legislators to see these teens as the victims of exploitation they often are remains an uphill battle.

It begins with a change in the words used to define them.

Innocence Lost

In the age of “Taxi Driver,” they were called teen hookers or child prostitutes: girls and boys who got paid for sex. But in the past decade, spurred by increased awareness of their manipulation by adult pimps, experts and advocates have begun casting about for a label that implies some level of victimhood.

The new terms don't exactly roll off the tongue. Two of the most popular are “domestic minor sex trafficking victim” and “commercially sexually exploited child,” both of which are mouthfuls. The most succinct is “prostituted minor.”

And that is where the battle begins.

In 2005, the Washington State-based advocacy group Shared Hope International received a grant from the U.S. State Department to look at sex trafficking in the U.S. What they found, according to Senior Director Samantha Vardaman, was that, contrary to popular belief, “most of the victims of sex trafficking in the U.S. were domestic minors.” Armed with this sex-trafficking definition, Shared Hope went to the Department of Justice (DOJ) the following year and asked for money to do another study, this time looking at how law enforcement was serving this population and what services were available.

The new study found that in the 10 major metropolitan areas surveyed, the DOJ-funded Human Trafficking Task Forces–which, according to Vardaman, were initially conceived as a way to deal with trafficking of foreign victims to the U.S.–generally weren't aware they were supposed to be focusing on domestic sex trafficking at all. This realization led the group to its next project: law enforcement education.

“We needed law enforcement to make a connection between a child being prostituted and traffickers, and they hadn't done that before,” says Vardaman. Using the DOJ grant money, the group has trained more than 10,000 law enforcement personnel around the country since 2007 on how to identify and treat prostituted minors.

The results, says Vardaman, have been inspiring.

“Law enforcement has been very supportive,” she says. “They want to be on the side of right.”

But proper training is key. Anecdotal information suggests that beat cops simply don't think about minors involved in prostitution as victims of trafficking. Sonia Ossorio, Executive Director of NOW-NYC, a women's advocacy group, encourages volunteers to “ask a cop” in their neighborhood about the state's 2008 Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, which redefined all sex workers under 16 as trafficking victims.

“What we've found is that they can't describe it,” says Ossorio. “One New York City cop told a volunteer, 'That happens in New Jersey, not New York.'” Another, says Ossorio, described the law as pertaining to assaults on traffic cops.

Another problem is the lack of reliable data on what New York City Legal Aid attorney Katherine Mullen calls this “lost” population.

Without permanent homes and often under the thumb of pimps or other exploiters, underage sex workers aren't exactly easy to study. Law enforcement records don't help. In 2006, Kimberly Mitchell and two colleagues from the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center began a nationwide study of juvenile prostitution cases. The researchers surveyed just over 2,500 law enforcement agencies throughout the country, asking for data on the number of juvenile prostitution arrests in 2005, the last year for which data was available. The results were disappointing.

“Record keeping was all over the place,” says Mitchell. Many agencies did not even have filing systems that allowed them to distinguish between underage and adult prostitution arrests in their data. Advocates and academics estimate there are between 100,000 and 300,000 juveniles involved in sex work at any given time in the U.S. But according to the New Hampshire study, “no scientifically credible estimate of the overall number of juveniles involved in prostitution yet exist.”

There are, however, some things we do know.

According to a 2009 report on prostituted minors in Las Vegas, 50 reported being physically abused at home, 41 percent reported sexual abuse, and 53 percent said they had been the victim of a sexual assault. The 2005 data that UNH researchers were able to get showed that in 57 percent of the reported cases the teens had a pimp, or “third party exploiter,” benefiting from their sex work and 21 percent had traveled across state lines for prostitution. Also in 2008, Dr. Ric Curtis, chair of the anthropology department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, did a survey of this population in New York City and found that fewer than 10 percent had a parent they could go to if they were in trouble, and 87 percent said they wanted to leave “the life” but for various reasons, chief among them lack of housing and employment, felt they could not.

Jessica Alvarez (not her real name), 25, is a perfect example.

At 18, Jessica was living in New Jersey with several other girls in a house owned by her pimp. She'd fled the Bronx, New York home of her mother, who drank and relied on public assistance to pay for the cramped apartment that housed uncles, nephews and brothers-in-law. At first, she admits, she was charmed by the Mercedes her pimp drove, and the nice clothes he bought for her.

“I'd never even had a dishwasher,” says Jessica, who is now in college and asked not to be identified.

After a few months of selling sex, Jessica says she wanted to leave, but had no idea where to go – or what to do. She was afraid of her pimp, who once punched her in the face for rolling her eyes, and knew her family and friends would be appalled if they learned what she'd been doing.

Beat-Up Kids

“The girls who involved in prostitution are the most beat-up of beat-up kids,” says Alexis Kennedy, a professor of forensic psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who authored the 2008 study. Kennedy, a Canadian, says she thinks the U.S. “is headed for a major paradigm shift” when it comes to underage sex workers.

“In Canada, they don't arrest anyone under 18 for prostitution,” says Kennedy. “When I realized that these kids were being picked up and dropped into the juvenile detention system I was shocked. If you're going to do that, you have to have programs for them and few do.”

In New York State, the Safe Harbor Act redefined prostituted minors under 16 as trafficking victims, but created a gray zone for 16 and 17 year olds by granting dual jurisdiction to the criminal and family court. So, if a 16-year-old is lucky enough to be seen in Judge Weinberg's court, he or she will likely be referred to family court, or offered counseling.

But the same teen arrested in a different New York county, could receive vastly different treatment, likely including incarceration.

Of course, the law only works if police and the courts know the sex worker they've picked up is underage, and many prostituted minors lie about their age, since the punishment for adult prostitution related offenses is often no more than a few nights in jail. Without identification or fingerprints on file, the system may never know that the 20-year-old they just slapped with a criminal offense was actually 15-year-old trafficking victim.

But remand to family court is no panacea. According to New York City Legal Aid attorney Katherine Mullen, even though family court sees only a “miniscule” number of actual prostitution cases, hundreds of New York kids are detained in juvenile facilities each year because of “suspicion” of prostitution.

“It can be total innuendo,” says Mullen, who says she has one 14-year-old client who has been incarcerated for two months on a shoplifting charge because the judge suspects she is involved in prostitution. “The judges are still under the assumption if you're locked up you're safe [from your pimp], which is technically true. If you locked up a domestic violence victim she'd be safe too, but eventually she's going to get out and you've done a lot of damage.”

But according to Mullen, if a child is the subject of a delinquency case–whether it be shoplifting, false impersonation or lying to a police officer, all charges Mullen says are common for young people involved in prostitution–group homes and social service agencies can exercise “discretion” about whether or not they want to work with them.

And when there is no place for the prostituted minor to go, she goes to detention – unless she gets lucky and falls into the hands of one of the country's few non-profits devoted solely to helping prostituted minors.

In New York City, a group called Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS) does just that. Spokeswoman Muhammida El-Muhajir says the 12-year-old group “wasn't always so welcome” in the city's court system. GEMS, a program run by women who have survived prostitution, has counselors at family and criminal courts throughout the city waiting to interview and assist girls whom the court suspects may be involved in prostitution. The group has 15 safe beds, which is a drop in the bucket when you consider that John Jay Professor Curtis estimates there are at least 3,500 minors involved in prostitution in the city.

Looking Forward

In the nearly two years since New York's Safe Harbor Act passed, Illinois, Washington and Connecticut have all approved similar laws. And last week in Texas, the State Supreme Court ruled that no child under the age of consent can be charged with prostitution.

“Every state law that's passed is getting better and better, and clearer and clearer,” says Mullen.

But even the best law is limp without money to assure compliance. Safe Harbor, which only went into effect in April 2010, called for law enforcement training on dealing with prostituted minors, but according to Mullen, the state's budget crisis has kept that money from being appropriated. And although the state estimated earlier this year that it would cost $10 million to effectively implement Safe Harbor, the current budget only sets aside $3 million.

Without these services, prostituted minors are likely to continue in this dangerous life. According to Vardaman, 70 percent to 80 percent of adult prostitutes began selling sex as youth.

Nobody knows this better than Jessica Alvarez, who escaped her pimp and returned home to New York only to find herself selling sex on her own.

“I was so confused,” says Alvarez. “I was feeling like it's night and I wanna get dressed up and go out on the streets. I felt embarrassed and disgusting, but I didn't know how to make my own choices. I didn't know how to be normal.”

It wasn't until she was 23 and happened upon the screening of the film “Very Young Girls,” produced by GEMS, that she realized there were other people out there who'd been through what she had?and that with some guidance, she could get her life back.

“Now I know I was taken advantage of,” says Alvarez, who is finishing a B.A. in psychology and plans to get a Masters' in social work. “And I know I have so much more to offer. I can empower other girls. They see me and say, 'You have your own apartment? You go to school?' It gives them hope.”

Julia Dahl is a contributing editor of The Crime Report

Photo by chuckTM via Flickr.

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