Would you call Tami a child prostitute?
A pimp kidnapped Tami on her way home from school in Los Angeles. He held her captive for six months, raping, beating and starving her. At night, he sold Tami for sex with other men. Tami tried to escape by telling every john who purchased her that she was only a kid. For months, Tami pleaded with her buyers: “I’m only 15. Can you please take me to a police station?” But none did. When she finally encountered police officers, they did not rescue her; they arrested her.
How about Sandra?
Sandra ran away from an abusive foster home in Florida at 12. She was found at a bus stop by a pimp who promised to love and care for her forever. He sold her to at least seven men a night. Finally she, too, was arrested, for child prostitution.
Unfortunately, girls in these situations are not typically seen as child victims of serial rape and abuse. Instead, they are left to fend for themselves or treated as child offenders, funneled into the juvenile-justice system for child prostitution or related charges.
About 293,000 U.S. children are at risk of being exploited and trafficked for sex, according to a 2011 FBI report on trafficking. Most are girls ages 12 to 14. They often are abducted or lured by pimps/traffickers, beaten into submission and sometimes even branded with the pimp’s name.
Across the United States, there are child sex markets not terribly dissimilar from those in Cambodia, Thailand and India. Girls are sold in this country with the same disregard for human dignity, and they are often tortured in the same ways when they try to escape.
Like trafficked girls everywhere, they are hidden in plain view. In Washington, D.C., they are right in front of us — on “dates” at Motel 6 or bars in Adams Morgan. They are purchased through websites such as Backpage.com, where their under-age status is signaled with terms like “fresh” or “new to town” or even the girl’s weight. Often they are dressed up to look older.
Many of the girls are children who were in foster care. One survivor explained to me how the foster-care system is a convenient supply chain for traffickers. “In most of my 14 different placements in foster-care homes,” she said, “I was raped and attached to a check. I understood very early that I could be raped, cared for and connected to money. It was therefore easy to go from that to a pimp, and at least the pimp told me that he loved me.”
Child-welfare systems do not properly identify or help children who are being trafficked for sex. Even when there is recognition of abuse, child-welfare agencies often regard it as outside of their purview because the perpetrator is not a parent or caregiver. Child-welfare agencies then shift the responsibility to law enforcement, which has failed to establish consistent protocols that treat trafficked children as victims of child abuse. These children are not routinely interviewed by sexual-violence experts, as is done in other instances of child rape. Nor do prosecutors provide them the legal protections afforded to other sexually assaulted minors.
Because they often are seen as prostitutes, these victims are routed into the juvenile-justice system. In many cases, the girls are handcuffed and detained, sometimes for days or longer. A 13-year-old girl recently was arrested in North Hollywood, for juvenile prostitution, put in handcuffs and carried off to detention. In California, like many other states, juvenile prostitution carries a sentence of up to two years. Whether girls are arrested for prostitution or just loitering, they are often the ones placed behind bars.
I have heard many judges express frustration that there is no safe place to send these girls. They cannot necessarily be returned to foster care or their families because their home life is often perilous and they might run away again. Nor can they be released onto the streets, where the pimps are waiting. For trafficked girls, there is rarely the option of safe, therapeutic centers. As Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, has pointed out, this country has more animal shelters than shelters for exploited children. Judges often detain these girls, believing that jail is the safest of many bad options.
But should an abused child be incarcerated for the abuses perpetrated against her? The people who rape these girls, the politely termed “johns,” are rarely arrested for statutory rape, child endangerment or sexual assault of a minor. Perhaps it is too difficult to accept what happens on U.S. soil, to our own daughters. Regardless, we must call this trafficking what it is: serial, systematized rape. And we must care for these girls, too often invisible to society, as victims and survivors of child sexual abuse.
Because there is no such thing as a child prostitute.
Malika Saada Saar is special counsel on human rights at the Raben Group and director of the Human Rights Project for Girls (Rights4Girls.org).