Sunday, September 30, 2007

"I don't want to do this anymore."

I accompanied the police on an "innocence lost" sweep last week. They were looking for commercially sexually exploited kids, not to arrest them, but to help them, and I was riding along to do some local research. It only took us ten minutes of driving through "the tracks" to come across a young-looking local girl. She claimed to be eighteen, though she was obviously younger. She wasn't dressed or acting in any particularly obvious manner, in fact her dress was rather plain and conservative, and her manner was calm, scared, child-like. When we approached her, she was with another young woman and they were talking to a middle-aged man in a truck in the parking lot of a motel, likely the "john". He had a few drinks so the cops cuffed him for a little while then sent him home in a cab.

What struck me about this girl is that she was still very new to "the life". She had run away from the residential shelter she was placed in to remove her from a home with an abusive father. It had been three weeks, but I'm sure it only took about a week of living desperately in the streets to be recruited by a pimp. When we found her last week, she was seemingly being trained by the other young woman. The closer the police came to uncovering her real age, the more anxious she became. The worse fate, of all the possibilities, it seemed, was to be returned to her father, especially in this way. After some investigation, it was found that SHE WAS ONLY FOURTEEN YEARS OLD. As we spoke to her, the pain in her eyes was evident. "I don't want to get arrested," she said. "My father can't find out," she lamented. But when she said "I DON'T WANT TO DO THIS ANYMORE," with a voice laced with despair, I just wanted to scoop her up and rescue her from her pain. Who knows what abuse she was suffering at the hands of an exploitative pimp. I searched my brain desperately for options, but was at a loss. There is no solution here yet to the problem of commercially sexually exploitated children.

We are just begining to make needed changes here in Miami and to build on the momentum created by other national and international initiatives. Kristi House is taking the lead and partnering with Girls Educational and Mentoring Services in New York City to replicate their best practices in engaging and helping victims of CSEC. I am proud to say that a coalition of service providers and law enforcement agencies has just been formed to address the needs of commercially sexually exploited children locally. We will work tirelessley to ensure that any child being exploited in sex industry; forced into street prostitution, dancing in our so-called "adult entertainment clubs" or being sold on Internet forums such as Craig's List will find the help and support they need to escape and stay safe. And next time we hear a fourteen-year-old tell us "I don't want to do this anymore", we will be able to reply, "well, here are your options."


Letter to the Editor re: Barry Kutun

When the former North Miami City Attorney Barry Kutun story first broke several months ago, his lawyers were quick to call his actions against a 16-year-old commercially sexually exploited child a “victimless crime”. The language used by his lawyers and the press, alike, has not since challenged this perception. A teenage girl being exploited in the sex industry is a victim, she is a commercially sexually exploited child; she is not a “teen prostitute”. The latter term carries age-old stereotypes and stigma and implies a level of agency that does not exist for the girl.

Consider these facts:

* The average age of entry into prostitution in the United States is twelve years old.

* There are currently up to 300,000 children being exploited in the commercial sex trade in the United States, thousands of which can be found in Miami.

* 80-90% of girls involved in prostitution are under the control of pimps, who often use violence and coercion to extract obedience and do not allow the girls to keep the money they earn.

These are children who, oftentimes, end up on the streets after exiting an abusive home and are quickly found and recruited by pimps looking for vulnerable youth to exploit. Escaping “the life” is incredibly difficult for most, as they are held in virtual slavery.

If a 66-year-old man had sex with a 16-year-old girl, it would no doubt be considered child sexual abuse. Once money is exchanged, however, we begin to see the child as a free agent. We need to wonder why Kutun is able to walk away with nine months of house arrest and doesn’t have to register as a sex-offender. Is it because, as his lawyers state, this was “an aberration in an otherwise stellar career” or because we really believe that “he’s not some street thug or criminal” and that our perception of an exploiter, laced with race and class stereotypes, is exactly that?

Kutun doesn’t fit into the nice little box that we like to categorize sex offenders. He’s not a creepy, under-the-bridge pedophile; he’s likely a situational abuser. He just doesn’t care if she is under eighteen, as long as she has features that are attractive to him, namely, she is young looking. This is not an aberration; in fact, it’s all too common among men of all stations. The biggest risk factor for children becoming exploited in the sex industry is the demand. One in seven men has been found to have purchased sex at least once in their lives and the demand for younger girls is on the rise. Remember, the average age of entry into prostitution is twelve.

The commercial sexual exploitation of children is not a hidden crime. It exists in plain sight and we choose to ignore it. Nicholas Spangler’s article in Saturday’s Herald made only marginal reference to the victim in the case, calling her a “16-year-old prostitute” who was only mentioned as a piece of evidence against Kutun. Her welfare was completely ignored by the press.

Likewise, her welfare was trivialized by the sentences handed down on Kutun and Orenbuch, the girl’s pimp. The commercial sexual exploitation of children is a crime of human trafficking, which is a federal crime carrying a fifteen-year sentence. The victims don’t have to be foreign nationals, they don’t have to be transported, and they don’t have to prove force, fraud or coercion. If they are minors being engaged in the sex industry, they are victims of trafficking according to law.

If we continue to dehumanize the child victim through our indifference and the way in which we speak about commercial sexual exploitation, the victims will continue to have limited access to needed services and the abusers will continue to go free or get significantly reduced sentences. We need to start making some changes. We need to understand that commercially sexually exploited children are victims of trafficking and of child sexual abuse and should be treated as such.