Running in the Shadows
Selling Their BodiesMonica Almeida/The New York Times
ASHLAND, Ore. — She ran away from her group home in Medford, Ore., and spent weeks sleeping in parks and under bridges. Finally, Nicole Clark, 14 years old, grew so desperate that she accepted a young man’s offer of a place to stay. The price would come later.
Nicole Clark, right, with Kate Baxted, an outreach worker, who is helping her piece her life back together. As a runaway, Nicole recalled, “I felt trapped in a way I can’t really explain.”
They had sex, and he soon became her boyfriend. Then one day he threatened to kick her out if she did not have sex with several of his friends in exchange for money.
She agreed, fearing she had no choice. “Where was I going to go?” said Nicole, now 17 and living here, just down the Interstate from Medford. That first exchange of money for sex led to a downward spiral of prostitution that lasted for 14 months, until she escaped last year from a pimp who she said often locked her in his garage apartment for months.
“I didn’t know the town, and the police would just send me back to the group home,” Nicole said, explaining why she did not cut off the relationship once her first boyfriend became a pimp and why she did not flee prostitution when she had the chance. “I’d also fallen for the guy. I felt trapped in a way I can’t really explain.”
Most of the estimated 1.6 million children who run away each year return home within a week. But for those who do not, the desperate struggle to survive often means selling their bodies.
Nearly a third of the children who flee or are kicked out of their homes each year engage in sex for food, drugs or a place to stay, according to a variety of studies published in academic and public health journals. But this kind of dangerous barter system can quickly escalate into more formalized prostitution, when money changes hands. And then, child welfare workers and police officials say, it becomes extremely difficult to help runaways escape the streets. Many become more entangled in abusive relationships, and the law begins to view them more as teenage criminals than under-age victims.
Estimates of how many children are involved in prostitution vary wildly — ranging from thousands to tens of thousands. More solid numbers do not exist, in part because the Department of Justice has yet to study the matter even though Congress authorized it to do so in 2005 as part of a nationwide study of the illegal commercial sex industry.
But many child welfare advocates and officials in government and law enforcement say that while the data is scarce, they believe that the problem of prostituted children has grown, especially as the Internet has made finding clients easier.
“It’s definitely worsening,” said Sgt. Kelley O’Connell, a detective who until this year ran the Boston Police Department’s human-trafficking unit, echoing a sentiment conveyed in interviews with law enforcement officials from more than two dozen cities. “Gangs used to sell drugs,” she said. “Now many of them have shifted to selling girls because it’s just as lucrative but far less risky.”
Atlanta, which is one of the only cities where local officials have tried to keep data on the problem, has seen the number of teenage prostitutes working in the city grow to 334 in February from 251 in August 2007.
The barriers to rescuing these children are steep: state cuts to mental heath services, child welfare agencies incapable of preventing them from running away, a dearth of residential programs where the children can receive counseling.
After years of abuse, trauma and neglect, the children also tend to trust no one. The longer they are on the streets, experts say, the more likely they are to become involved in crime and uncooperative with the authorities.
“These kids enter prostitution and they literally disappear,” said Bradley Myles, deputy director of the Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that directly serves children involved in prostitution and other trafficking victims. “And in those rare moments that they reappear, it’s in these revolving-door situations where they’re handled by people who have no idea or training in how to help them. So the kids end up right back on the street.”
The Flip Interview
That revolving door is what an F.B.I. agent, Dan Garrabrant, desperately hoped to stop in Interview Room One at the Atlantic City Police Department on Sept. 5, 2006.
A version of this article appeared in print on October 27, 2009, on page A1 of the New York edition.
If you can support shelters please do – For Runaways on the Street, Sex Buys SurvivalPosted: October 27, 2009 in MY VIEWS