Prostitution sweep recovered 23 children; hundreds more still stuck in ‘The Life’
Final day of the series
Leslie Briner works with children who have been forced to sell sex and finds that there’s two stories that she hears again and again. One is that is that it started with a moment when they believed they could trust someone.
“Of all the girls I’ve worked with, they’ve said if I hadn’t made that one choice, all these things might not have happened,” she said.
The other is that as they were going through the process of being recruited, groomed, abused, controlled and turned out by violent pimps, there were adults – teachers, medical professionals, or relatives – who should have seen the signs of prostitution.
“I’ve had children say, ‘I’ve been in the life three years and no one’s ever asked,’” Briner said.
Briner believes that it’s possible to save far more children from the life of prostitution, but a lot of things have to change in the way that law enforcement, social service providers and society as a whole understands and deals with commercial sexual exploitation of children. Briner is the associate director of residential services at YouthCare, a Seattle non-profit organization that serves at-risk youth, including those who are involved in prostitution.
Briner also helped with a prostitution sweep in early November by federal and local law enforcement, recovering 23 children in King and Pierce County. The sweep’s purpose was to focus on girls who are being controlled by gang-affiliated pimps who are often also domestically and sexually abusing girls.
Police and social services providers were glad that they could recover the 23 girls, but they knew that they only had found a tiny portion of the children who are being exploited in the area. Estimates of the number of people under 18 involved in prostitution range as high as 1,000 in Seattle and King County.
FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Steven Dean said that a total of 26 adult prostitution suspects, nine pimping suspects and 23 children were arrested locally in the sweep, part of the nationwide Operation Cross Country that performed nationwide prostitution stings Nov. 5 through 8.
Seattle Police followed a victim-centered approach to the arrests, which meant that girls under 18 met with staff members from YouthCare. Briner participated in the sweep by meeting with girls after they had been brought in by police.
Girls are usually very uncooperative when they get arrested for prostitution, Briner said, but this time was easier. “They’re so used to the cops leveraging information out of them, and then criminalizing them,” she said. “Once they realized that we weren’t going to jam up their lives, they were more cooperative.” Several of them offered up the names of “bad johns,” or abusive customers, Briner said.
She said that it was the first time that she’d seen Seattle police try a victim-centered approach to dealing with commercially sexually exploited children. Briner said that police had done well to have social workers and nurses available at the interviews, but in some ways the officers were still treating the girls like criminals – interrogating them first before the youth-services workers could talk to them.
The girls had been brought in by stings by undercover police officers, mostly over the phone from advertisements on Backpage.com and other Internet sites. Rainy weather in Seattle meant that there hadn’t been much streetwalking activity. (Craigslist.org stopped allowing erotic services ads in September, but no one interviewed for this story thought that’s put a damper on overall prostitution activity.)
A typical prostitution sting requires the undercover officer and the prostitute to make an offer and agreement for an amount of money to be paid for sexual services, but Briner said with these recoveries, the officers arrested the girls as soon as they met. The Becca Legislation in Washington state allows police to detain runaway children if they believe they are in danger even if there’s no proof of a crime. “The goal was to recover minors,” she said.
Of the 23 children who came through, Briner said, about 12 got booked into juvenile detention for old warrants and probation violations, but not for anything they did the night they were arrested. Another two went into shelters. Others were released to family members. Briner said that YouthCare staff were keeping track of all of them, and one-third of the girls had been known to YouthCare previously.
Seattle Police Lt. Eric Sano, commander of the vice/high risk victims unit, said that so far in 2010, Seattle police have recovered 77 prostituted children – last year, it was 30 total. The increase, he said, is because the department is putting more emphasis on recovering children this year.
A report by anthropologist Debra Boyer found 238 children who were known to be involved in prostitution in Seattle and Pierce County, and she estimated that actual total was between 300 and 500. Sano believes the number is closer to 800 or 1,000, although he doesn’t have a scientific compilation.
Sano also believes the overall number of children who are being exploited this way is increasing because the Internet makes it easier for customers to find girls, and because gang members are getting involved as pimps, finding that recruiting, controlling and selling girls is a more lucrative and less risky business than selling drugs.
Law enforcement and social services agencies have been changing the way that they deal with girls who are being commercially exploited for sexual purposes. Part of Sano’s job is to go around the state educating other police departments about commercial sexual exploitation of children and getting them to view girls under 18 who involved in prostitution as victims, not criminals. In some ways, the attitude change that has to happen is like the one that has to happen 25 years ago for domestic violence. Back then, he remembered, officers would often say, “Oh, I can’t believe that’s a mandatory arrest.”
Police have also realized that exiting the life of prostitution is very difficult for girls because of the pimps – they control the girls through violence, and they recruit girls without other places to go, including runaways and children from the foster care system.
“When we recover a juvenile, returning home to the parents may not be the best option – or an option at all,” Sano said.
One new service that YouthCare started this year is The Bridge (pictured at left), a residential facility with room for six girls at an undisclosed location somewhere in the Seattle area. The Bridge allows girls who have been previously exploited to live there for up to two years or until they turn 18, and the location is kept secret as many of the girls are fleeing from violent pimps who might try to get them back into the life of prostitution.
With room for only six girls, Briner said she knows that there’s not nearly enough space to deal with all of the girls who need help, but she added that pushing for a change in public opinion is an equally important part of helping exploited children. “You’ll never have enough specialized beds,” she said.
Her hope is that as more people know about domestic sex trafficking, more adults will know to look for the signs of prostitution in children as young as 11 or 12 and have the nerve to ask: “Have you ever exchanged sex for money or a place to stay?”
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