Getting to runaways before the pimps

Helping homeless kids is key to fighting underage prostitution, but cops have to find them before it's too late

Published October 27, 2009 10:25PM (EDT)

Just yesterday we wrote about a nationwide FBI sweep that rescued 52 children from prostitution, and now there comes a New York Times feature about those most vulnerable to being exploited through sex work: underage runaways.

The piece is the last of a two-part series on the rising number of kids leaving their homes and taking to the streets each year and focuses on the staggering one-third of whom ultimately trade their bodies for food, shelter or drugs. Many of these youngsters gradually slide into a direct exchange of sex for money. "Virtually all the juveniles who become involved in prostitution are runaways," the Times reports. Suffice it to say: Helping runaways is a crucial part of fighting child prostitution.

The challenge -- well, one of many -- is getting to underage prostitutes before they become too enmeshed with a pimp and before they are arrested for prostitution. At that point, most are on-guard and defensive, have a well-rehearsed tale to tell the cops and are too devoted to their pimp (as a boyfriend, father figure, boss or some combination thereof) to inform on them. Also, as far as the legal system is concerned, they come to be seen as perps rather than victims.

One way to catch them before it's too late is to target repeat runaways for intervention: In Dallas, Sgt. Byron A. Fassett found that "80 percent of the prostituted children the department had handled had run away from home at least four or more times a year." So, the department began flagging juvies who fit that profile -- to the tune of roughly 200 a year. Now, when any of these kids are picked up by police, they're taken to Fassett's "High Risk Victim" unit. Over time, the cops  build trust with them and eventually raise the subject of prostitution. Luckily, there's a very happy ending to this particular story:

The Dallas County district attorney’s office has on average indicted and convicted or won guilty pleas from over 90 percent of the pimps arrested. In virtually all of those cases, the children involved in the prostitution testified against their pimps, according to the prosecutor’s office. Over half of those convictions started as cases involving girls who were picked up by the police not for prostitution but simply as repeat runaways.

Buuut -- yes, of course there's a but -- Dallas' success hasn't caught on elsewhere, even though Congress OKed a plan two years ago to spend $55 million to start similar programs nationwide. After a disagreement with President Bush over the federal budget, the initiative was scrapped. In the meantime, pimps across the country are more than happy to pick up the slack and profile these kids themselves by trolling "homeless shelters, bus stations and shopping malls" in search of runaways to recruit.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

MORE FROM Tracy Clark-Flory

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Sex Work