A Shift: Teen Prostitutes Seen As Victims

This Feb. 5, 2009 photo shows an unidentified resident of Children of the Night -- a short-term, live-in rehabilitation program for teenage prostitutes in Los Angeles. AP Photo/Kim Johnson Flodin

By the time she was 8, Amanda had been sexually abused by her father's friend for four years. At 12, she was peddling crack. At 14, she was selling sex on the sidewalk.

Her pimp beat her weekly to keep her working, stitching up her wounds himself to avoid questions at a hospital. Her average earnings of $600 for a 13-hour day of turning tricks bought him a car.

Now 15, Amanda is rebuilding her life. Caught when a cop stopped one of her customers for a broken tail light, she was sent to Children of the Night, a residential program in suburban Los Angeles that rehabilitates teen prostitutes.

"All my life my plate was like overfilled with problems," she said. "I always asked God to give me something good, and this is it."

The fact that Amanda was rescued instead of arrested reflects not only a stroke of luck but a decidedly different take on tackling the juvenile sex trade. Courts and law enforcement are increasingly treating young prostitutes as child abuse victims - and their pimps as human traffickers.

"This is an institutional shift," said Nancy O'Malley, an Alameda County prosecutor who wrote California's new sexually exploited minors law. "It's about getting people to shift their attention and judgment from the minor and seeing what's beyond this criminal behavior."

New York also has a new law that calls for underage prostitutes to be sent to rehabilitation programs instead of juvenile detention, along with more training for law enforcement in handling the troubled teenagers and taking a harder line on their pimps.

In many other states, prosecutors are charging pimps with human trafficking, or the transportation of people for illicit commercial purposes. Convictions can land traffickers in prison for decades.

The approach comes as pimps are getting increasingly sophisticated and harder to bust. They run loose networks across states lines that distribute girls like drugs and set up Internet sex operations that are tough to infiltrate.

The result: Teen prostitution has spread to towns across the country, said Michael Langeman, who heads the FBI's Crimes Against Children unit. The FBI's work is also bolstered by federal trafficking laws to crack down on pimps.

In Nevada, a man was sentenced to life for transporting two girls from that state to cities around California to work as prostitutes in 2006. Last year, three people pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of children in San Diego for running an Internet-advertised sex ring with 14- and 16-year-olds.

"This isn't like the old days of a slap on the wrist," said Keith Bolkar, who heads the FBI's Cybercrimes unit in Los Angeles.

Rescuing the girls is an important part of the equation. In most cases, they're troubled, often sexually abused, lured into prostitution by "boyfriends" who shower them with the loving attention they lack at home. Gifts and outings, though, turn into violence and emotional manipulation.

That was the case with Samantha, a 15-year-old from Orange County, now at Children of the Night, a rehab program for teen prostitutes. At 14, she said, she started using drugs and skipping school. She soon met an older man.

"He gave me money, drugs, clothes," she recalled. "I was having fun. Then he started hitting me."

The boyfriend took her to Arizona, made her pose for photos in lingerie and have sex with men who responded to Craigslist ads.

"I complained a lot so he gave me drugs," she said.

She was rescued when another girl was arrested and told police about her.

Children of the Night, which has 24 beds, is one of four similar programs around the country. The others are in New York City, San Francisco and Atlanta. Two more are planned to open this year in Oakland and Toledo, Ohio.

The dearth of programs means girls from all over the country are sent to Children of the Night.

Gladys, a 17-year-old from a Miami suburb, found herself there after she ran away from home to be with a boyfriend. The boyfriend advertised her as a prostitute on Craigslist and threatened to kill her if she didn't comply. She was shuffled around motels over a two-month period until one of his other "girlfriends" got arrested.

"I was like 'thank God. I want to go home. What did I get myself into?"' she said.

Now, she's completing high school and driver's instruction and looking for a job.

The Associated Press doesn't routinely identify the victims of sexual abuse. The names Amanda, Samantha and Gladys are pseudonyms.

Programs that build the girls' self-esteem, push them to finish high school and heal their trauma are ideal, but funding is always short for a cause that generally doesn't engender public sympathy, said Lois Lee, a sociologist who founded Children of the Night 30 years ago in her home and runs it on $2 million a year in private donations.

Once a girl becomes involved in prostitution, her prospects are bleak. An arrest usually offers the only hope for escape. Even then, there's a small chance the girl is offered rehabilitation - and accepts it. Lee said 61 percent of 94 girls at Children of the Night in 2008 completed the program.

Amanda, now studying for her high school diploma, realized that was her fate if she didn't accept Children of the Night.

"I said to myself 'If I go back to the streets, I'm there 'til I die,"' she said. "I knew this was my chance."
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