Lies trap children in life as prostitutes

Phoenix boosts effort to save victims, punish pimps, johns

Judi Villa
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 28, 2007 12:00 AM

She was only 13 when she met him on an Internet chat line.

He said they could make some money together. She thought he meant selling drugs. OK, she could do that.

It was not until he brought her to Arizona from Utah the day before her 14th birthday and put her on a street corner that she realized what she would be selling was her body.

"At first I was real, real scared to do it," she said. But she is 15 now and "used to it."

"If I end up dead, I'm supposed to end up dead," she said. "God's with me."

Her story isn't unique. Child prostitution is a growing problem in Phoenix and across the country, as girls and boys, some even 13 and younger, are put on the streets and sold over the Internet for sex.

Phoenix police say they first noticed an alarming uptick in child prostitution a couple of years ago, and it's only gotten worse since then. Fighting prostitution has become one of the department's highest priorities, while federal officials have taken aim at human trafficking. Phoenix, which draws prostitutes from across the country, has added a third squad of vice officers and is among 14 cities participating in the FBI's Innocence Lost initiative to target child prostitution.

State and federal prosecutors have begun working together to win the harshest sentences for those caught trafficking minors or having sex with them. And Phoenix officials are pushing to strengthen state laws that could put pimps and johns behind bars longer, possibly for life, even if they don't know the girls are underage.

"We really are talking about human slavery, some of the worst form of human slavery there is. And it doesn't stop," said Kathleen Mitchell, founder and coordinator of DIGNITY Services, a rehabilitation and diversion program for adult prostitutes in Phoenix. "To me, it's incredibly sad."

The young girls easily rake in $500 to $1,000 a night and hand every penny to the pimps who fill their heads with empty promises about fancy clothes and cars and houses.

Instead, they are sexually abused, beaten and threatened by pimps who isolate them and convince them this is the good life. Experts say more than four out of every five prostitutes will be the victim of an assault with a weapon and they will be raped eight to 10 times a year. The physical, sexual and emotional effects are devastating and long-lasting.

"Every time you kick over a rock, you find more," said Phoenix police Sgt. Chris Bray. "We're out there, we look and we find them. There are plenty."

A growing problem

The exact numbers of child prostitutes is difficult to determine. Until recently, the problem has largely remained hidden. But experts generally agree with estimates that about 300,000 children annually are sexually exploited for money in the United States.

Young girls are recruited from shopping malls, arcades, schools and parks and now from chat rooms and social networking sites on the Internet.

"It can happen to anybody," Bray said. "Don't think because of where you live or how you were raised that you're immune to this."

Mitchell said she runs into one or two new kids every week while doing out- reach to prostitutes on the streets of Phoenix. Bray estimates that there are about 100 to 150 pimps in the greater Phoenix area and that each of them either has or has had at least one underage girl.

In the past several years, there has been a pragmatic shift toward treating girls as victims, not criminals, and targeting pimps and johns. But services for victims are lacking.

"I see them as little girls," said Carol Smolenski, executive director of ECPAT-USA, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based organization to fight the sexual exploitation of children. "How can you look at a little girl like that and not feel terrible and not want to scream at men who do that?

"She's 12 years old, and, 'Oh, she's a prostitute.' It's a tragedy."

The most vulnerable

Runaways and truants are the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation, as are girls with low self-esteem. According to the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Runaway and Throwaway Children, an estimated 450,000 children run away from home every year. Living on the streets, one out of every three teens will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. And the longer they are gone, the more likely they are to engage in "survival sex." After three months away from home, 90 percent of children will turn to sex.

Other girls, on occasion, are kidnapped off the streets and forced into prostitution. In 2005, Phoenix police rescued a 15-year-old girl who was being kept in a dog crate by a pimp and repeatedly forced to have sex.

Johns want younger girls because they see them as healthier and less likely to carry diseases such as HIV. And some say the sexualization of young girls in mainstream culture has fueled the demand.

"The message is being sold to girls and boys that the value of a girl is in her body," Smolenski said. "Everywhere you look the idea of girls, even young girls, as sexpots is being sold. Girls are not being protected from the industry."

The girls are often easy to manipulate and not savvy enough to realize this is bad.

"These young girls are a year away from playing with Barbie," Bray said. "What do they know about working the streets and prostitution?"

Said Mitchell: "They buy into that lie because sometimes that lie sounds a whole lot better than what they're living. A person can make it sound real good. You're going to have a roof over your head. You're going to have clothes on your back."

Preying on girls

It usually happens something like this: A pimp meets a girl and preys on her insecurities. He tells her she's beautiful, maybe dangles a job modeling or acting. She could make all this money. They'll get married, have babies, live in a fancy house. She falls for him, buys the hype and then he puts her on the streets. The manipulation can be so subtle that many child prostitutes will say it was their choice.

"Nobody put a gun to my head and forced me," said the girl who was lured into prostitution by a guy she met on the Internet. "I did it because I wanted to. I'm not going to go to hell because I did this."

The process is similar to grooming a child for molestation, said FBI Special Agent Michael Conrad.

"If you were to look at an act that occurs with a stereotypical child molester, that obviously arouses outrage in anyone. If the same act is done for commercial profit, people aren't as outraged, and they should be. A pimp who is involved in the prostitution of a juvenile is a child molester," Conrad said.

"To say that they have a choice or this is a choice they've made, that is naive."

At first, though, the money can make the girls feel valuable, Mitchell said. "They hang on to that," she said. "The more money they make, the better they feel."

Eventually, the beatings always start. Maybe she didn't bring in enough money. Maybe it's just to maintain control of her. Police have seen girls beaten with a leather belt soaked in water and with their teeth knocked out. On the streets, they also face kidnapping, assault, rape and murder.

"They get nothing out of it," Bray said. "They say they get protection. They say they get love. They get empty promises. They have nothing to show at the end of the day."

But, Bray said, "Some of these young people are so craving of attention that they'll take any attention, even this."

Increasingly, sex with underage girls is being sold over the Internet and little girls are working for escort services, massage parlors and brothels.

"It's kind of hard to sweep it under the rug now and say it's something that only happens on the bad side of town," Conrad said.

Walking the streets

Jacqueline Robinson, 17, was 13 when she left home with some clothes her mom had just bought her and 50 cents to get on the bus. She had barely stepped off the bus when a prostitute told her she could make some money.

Robinson, who agreed to have her name published, said she was embarrassed the first time she went on the streets. She didn't have the right clothes, and she wasn't really sure what to do. She made only about $50 a night until she learned watching other girls.

After a while, she said, "it was a career." "I felt like I couldn't wait to get out there. It was a rush for me having that much money in my hand."

"It was all about having fun," Robinson said. "Getting money was fun for me."

She was arrested twice and escaped a john who tried to stab her.

At 13, she was pregnant. But she was working without a pimp, and one night, she was beaten for that. She miscarried the baby girl in an alley, severing the umbilical cord with a rock.

When she was 14, she had a boy. He was adopted by her aunt. She quit prostituting shortly after. She was almost 15.

Robinson never did go to the prom or walk across the stage to get her diploma, things she always dreamed of.

"Do I want to start my life over again and do it the right way?" she said. "I do want that."

She thinks she will work legally as a stripper when she turns 18 to put herself through college. She wants to be a pro golfer and a fashion designer.

"The game," as she calls it, is something she won't go back to. "It's too scary."

"I want to have kids, and I want to have friends. I want to go to parties and clubs. I want to have a job and make money," Robinson said. "I want to be normal, and that's not going to happen if I'm out there turning tricks. I'm getting older. I can do better."

Long-term damage

Prostituted girls, though, have a tough time getting out of the business and rebuilding their lives.

Many suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. On the streets, they often take on different personas and numb themselves with drugs and alcohol. They learn to survive by distancing themselves from people. They wrestle with anger and shame and a hatred for men. More than half attempt suicide.

Mitchell calls it "a hallowing out of your spirit."

"It's gonna scar you for life," said one girl, now 17, who first worked as a prostitute at 15. "You're going to have that image of you every time you look in the mirror."

The girl said she didn't want to sell her body when a man approached her, saying he was "a manager looking for employees." He said he'd put her on the streets and she'd get half. He promised to take her shopping and buy her a house.

She was afraid he'd hit her if she said no. Afterward, she cried like a baby. But a month later, when her mom needed money to pay bills and her little sister needed $200 for a trip, she hit the streets again.

"For the first while, I didn't feel right about it. This is nasty. This isn't right," she said. "Then my mind kicked in. This is what you have to do to support your family."

She felt good taking care of her family. She could buy nice things like makeup and scented lotions and gifts for her mother. It didn't matter that she was kidnapped once by a pimp and that a john pulled a knife on her.

She told herself she wasn't really a prostitute because she didn't do it all the time.

"I was trying to make my dream come true," she said.

Now, though, she struggles to have a relationship with her boyfriend. When he says she is beautiful, she wonders if he just wants sex. Some days, she thinks she is ugly or dirty.

"This has scarred me," she said.

She isn't alone. The 15-year-old girl from Utah thinks back to when the guy on the Internet first lured her into a life of prostitution. Since then, she has been arrested and nearly killed. The scar from a knife is above her left wrist. She is in jail for robbing a john.

She talks about getting her GED and going to college. But she says there is nothing wrong with prostitution, either. She may even go back to it.

"Dudes, they'll make you think they love you, and they just want sex," she said. "In the world of prostitution, you know they just want sex. You know you're going to get money. You don't get your feelings hurt."

Besides, she said, it's not likely she will fulfill her childhood dream now. Back then, she wanted to be a doctor.

"I'm a felon," she said. "You make one mistake and you can't work with people. You can't work with animals. You can't work with kids. What am I going to do when I get out? I can't do much."