Modern Day Slavery in America (Part 2): There Is No Such Thing As a Child Prostitute
Oakland Local, a web site run by BlogHer Contributing Editor Susan Mernit, is running an original investigative series on youth sex trafficking in the Bay area. This story is reposted from that series at Oakland Local. Here is part one of the series.
Who is this "commodity" being traded on the street? Statistically she is a 13-year-old girl who has run away from an abusive parent, guardian or foster home. Too young to fend for herself as a runaway, she ends up under the control of a pimp who promises to take care of her. Then the trafficker turns on her and, either by emotional manipulation or physical threat, gets the girl to work the streets to bring in money.
"These are children who have never known love, so they look for love in all the wrong places," said Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Eshraghi Bock, who has directed 148 cases against people alleged to have sold teenagers and children for sex. "All the pimp has to say is, 'Baby I love you and some day I want to have a family with you but today I'm short of cash. Can you help me make the rent?'" Bock continued. In other situations, girls are kidnapped off sidewalks by traffickers who then threaten them into cooperation. That's what happened in the case of Vincent Turner, tried and convicted April 2 in Superior Court in Alameda County on seven felony counts including kidnapping, rape and trafficking. Prosecutors said Turner kidnapped a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old off the street in Oakland, brought them to Stockton and told them they had to work as prostitutes to raise money to win their release. Turner will be sentenced in June and faces 15 years to life.
National and local statistics say 80 percent of minors trafficked for commercial sex are runaways and most experienced sexual or physical abuse as young children. A 2008 study of 149 Bay Area kids receiving services after the trauma of commercial sexual abuse found:
- 82 percent ran away from home
- 70 percent were abused as young children
- 61 percent were raped before they were adolescents
- 55 percent ran away from a foster care or group home
(This study was conducted by the Sexually Exploited Minors Support Network, Safe Place Alternative program in Alameda County.)
"A common trait is previous abuse. A lot of our children are sexual abuse victims, and children who have not had adults around to do basic things like enroll them in school," said Nola Brantley, director of MISSSEY, the largest organization serving commercially sexually exploited youth in Alameda County and the person who oversaw the survey. (MISSSEY stands for Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth.)
"A lot of the girls were exchanged for drugs. Like their mother is a drug addict and she allows someone to have sex with her child in exchange for drugs. We get that all the time," she said, her voice rising.
Or they are kids living in poverty. "We have a girl coming in she has no food, she has no clothes. If she goes back home there is nothing in the refrigerator. We're not just providing her talk, you feel me? We're providing her socks, and underwear, and food and diapers for her baby," Brantley said.
In the United States, the average age of entry into prostitution is 13, noted Kelly Tyne of nonprofit advocacy agency the Stand Against Global Exploitation Project. This number is widely acknowledged by advocates and law enforcement.
"Those are children," he said of that age. "There is no such thing as a child prostitute. There are children who are raped. There are children who suffer molestation. There are children who survive sexual violence. But there is no such thing as a child prostitute," said Tyne, himself a survivor of a childhood of commercial sexual exploitation.
Not Just Poor Kids
Some kids are from wealthy but abusive homes. One 16-year-old girl said she ran away from two abusive parents. Unable to figure out how to support herself on the streets, she took up with a pimp who offered her food and shelter but then abused her and forced her to sell herself. Counselors from Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR) talked with her and discovered her pimp had burned her with cigarettes and broken her nose.
"These kids run away from being beaten by a parent or someone the parent knows and the streets become their family. Then they are abused again," said Patrick Mims, the BAWAR social worker who helped her.
The National Runaway Switchboard reports that 80 percent of girls who run away from home are fleeing physical or sexual abuse.
What It's Like to Be a Sexually Exploited Teen
Saundra Domingue was prostituted in Oakland for many years starting at age 17, but now is a counselor with the Stand Against Gobal Exploitation Project, a San Francisco nonprofit for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation. She said her first pimp "painted this beautiful picture, this glamorous picture, that if I engaged in prostitution, I would have money in my pocket, I would have a roof over my head, I would have food and clothes, very beautiful clothes." Domingue's trafficker was a woman and among the first people she met after running away from home. "So I, not having any other means of supporting myself, adhered to this woman's wishes."
Unfortunately there are plenty of kids who need love and support in Oakland and the Bay. The Alameda County Social Services Agency receives 1,600 reports of child abuse or neglect each month. In those reports are many of the children who will become victims of commercial sexual exploitation.
by Barbara Grady, Oakland Local
Oakland Local's investigation into youth sex trafficking in Oakland was made possible by a generous grant from the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism.
We also would like to thank Robert Rosenthal and California Watch for their support -- as well as our reporters Barbara Grady and Sarah Terry-Cobo, and photographer Alison Yin -- for their amazing work.
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