New York City’s Prostituted Youth: Criminals by Law or Slaves of the 21st Century?
In his early years as an assemblyman from Jamaica, Queens, William Scarborough admits, he didn't care much for the girls who regularly congregate along Rockaway Avenue. Scarborough used to drive past them watching in disbelief as the girls walked up to parked cars in skimpy clothes, which revealed far too much of their underage bodies.
The girls - blacks, whites and Latinas - would exchange a few words with the drivers to negotiate a price, get into their cars, and drive off to one of the big parking lots nearby to have sex with their "customers." A few minutes later, their clients would drop them off and the girls would initiate the next of many more "transactions" until their pimps would pick them up.
"Why don't these kids just get themselves together, get off the corner and make something of themselves," Scarborough thought. He couldn't understand why a young girl would want to make a living by selling her body. He didn't feel particularly sorry for them and, like most people, he had no idea how they had entered the trade and why they stayed. New York State's widespread approach of arresting these children for their "crimes" wasn't something Scarborough opposed either.
His mindset completely changed shortly after Scarborough became the chairman of the Committee of Children and Families in January 2005. During a series of roundtables with former prostituted children and their social workers, Scarborough and several of his colleagues were exposed to the gruesome reality of these children's lives. Two of their stories in particular stuck in his mind.
A 15-year-old girl told the group that she had been in the business for three years. She had been part of a "stable" or "harem" operated by an abusive pimp. The girls were required to go out every night and bring in a certain amount of cash. One winter night, the girls were told to go out despite temperatures below freezing and bring in $1,000 each. But one girl, who had spent a lot of time in a bar to stay warm, came back with only $300. Her pimp reacted furiously. He beat her up, threw her fully clothed into a cold shower and made her stay there for an hour. He then dragged her out into the freezing cold telling her, "Don't come back until you make a $1,000."
In another scenario, a young girl had once hidden some cash from her pimp by placing it in her bra. When the girls came in to hand over all their earnings to the pimp, the money fell out of her cleavage. Enraged by the deceit, the pimp gathered all of his girls around in a circle, put the young women in the center, poured lighter fluid on her and burned her alive.
"Some of the stories that we heard would actually turn your stomach," says Scarborough, who since has become the driving force behind the Safe Harbor Act, a proposed state law to protect prostituted children. "I think we have a responsibility to try to change that situation."
Ever since he heard these stomach-turning stories, Scarborough has pursued a mission of changing the public's opinion about prostituted children and altering their treatment by law enforcement. But he has fought an uphill battle on many fronts against those who view the children as criminals rather than victims, those who believe the girls should be arrested, and those who simply don't know the industry exists. His lobbying efforts for the Safe Harbor Act involved convincing prosecutors and other opponents that these girls are commercially sexually exploited children rather than working prostitutes, and that locking them up fails to punish the real criminals, namely the pimps and johns.
But Scarborough's work is complicated by the fact that hard data for the scope of the problem in New York City is scarce, reflecting a lack of public interest and the difficulty of capturing an underground and transient population. The state Office of Children and Families estimates there are 2,600 commercially sexually exploited children in the city, who are forced to work as prostitutes on the streets of Hunts Point or Queens Plaza, for example. Most of them are African-American girls with little education. Many come from low-income families in the projects and almost all of them have been sexually or physically abused early in life. Often they have run away from home to escape such cruelty only to experience even worse on the streets. They are usually "recruited" by pimps who approach them on the sidewalks or near youth shelters, luring them into romantic relationships which quickly turn exploitative. The average age of these kids who enter prostitution is 12 years and once they are caught inside it is difficult to get out.
Currently, the prospects of these prostituted children often lie in a bleak choice between abuse by a pimp and the loneliness of a jail cell. Although children under the age of 17 can't legally consent to sex in the state of New York, commercially sexually exploited minors are frequently arrested and locked up under the charge of prostitution. They are the only population within that age group exempt from the law, and instead of receiving medical and counseling services they are put at danger of being abused by other inmates or even law enforcement officials. The girls are arrested despite the provisions of two other laws, the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the New York State Human Trafficking Law, which are supposed to protect victims of sex slavery.
Scarborough's proposed Safe Harbor Act would put a stop to this practice by designating children arrested for prostitution as "persons in need of supervision." Under the proposed law, children who are too young to legally consent to sex couldn't be charged with prostitution. They would no longer be treated as criminals and put in shelters rather than jail cells. The act requires the state to provide them with medical and counseling services. It would apply to New York's homeless minors who engage in "survival sex" to provide for their basic needs, or those who are exploited by pimps for commercial sexual purposes such as prostitution, acting in pornographic movies and stripping.
"We are trying to decriminalize what happens to the child prostitutes," Scarborough says. "Give them an opportunity to reclaim their lives as long as they will cooperate with the prosecution and get the services."
After lobbying for the Safe Harbor Act for almost three years, Scarborough's proposal was expected to have overwhelming support in the state Legislature last year. The Senate and Assembly disagreed, however, in one small but decisive factor. While the law's Assembly version sponsored by Scarborough said a judge shall drop the charges if the accused prostitute is a minor, the Senate version read that a judge may convert a criminal charge to a non-criminal one. Since a bill has to read identically in both houses and neither side was willing to change the wording, the Safe Harbor Act didn't pass.
"We got hung up between the Senate and the Assembly on one word. One word stopped us last year from passing the bill," Scarborough says. "The reason we were so adamant about that one word is because may does not change the law. Prosecutors and judges have the ability right now to convert a charge if they want to, and they never do. So, that's where we're stuck now."
Opponents of the act included prosecutors who said the bill was too soft on crime, a charge that Scarborough denounces. He says the Safe Harbor Act focuses the penalties correctly by targeting the johns and pimps instead of the children. "We are trying to put the penalties where they belong by trying the ones who make the profit, the ones who create this condition," Scarborough says.
But some prosecutors argued that the threat of detention was necessary to force children to cooperate with police in prosecuting these criminals. Their opinion stood in stark contrast to defense attorneys like Dorchen Leidholdt, who have worked with these children and say threatening the victims is the wrong approach. Leidholdt, who is the director of the Center for Battered Women's Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families, calls the prosecutors "misguided" and says detention only worsens the plight of prostituted children. "What we are doing now in New York State and in many states is really a travesty," she says. "We're worsening the situation of some of the most abused children around through our legal system's response. As long as victims of child rape are treated as criminals nothing is going to change." In June, Leidholdt came to Scarborough's defense when she testified before the New York City Council on sexually exploited youth and the Safe Harbor Act. But the opponents of the Safe Harbor Act successfully lobbied against the bill, which has been stalled for now.
The Legislature's failure to pass the act came much to the disappointment of Rachel Lloyd, founder of Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), which is New York City's only non-profit providing extensive services for commercially sexually exploited children. "I didn't think there would be so much resistance," Lloyd says. "But there are still people who think these kids have to be arrested."
Lloyd founded GEMS in 1998 and today provides more than 250 girls with medical, educational and legal services annually. Over the past three years, she worked closely with Scarborough on promoting the Safe Harbor Act by inviting politicians to listen to her clients' stories. During one of last years' roundtables, the girls' accounts had a deep impact on the politicians. "One of my staunch Republican colleagues from a conservative upstate community, when he listened to them and he saw the videos, was in tears," Scarborough says. "I mean literally in tears."
After witnessing this response and celebrating the passing of the act in the Assembly, Lloyd was excited that her efforts had finally shown results. But the day of the Senate hearing, she received a phone call from Scarborough explaining the defeat, much to the disappointment of her clients. "The girls were asking me, ‘Don't they care about us?'" Lloyd says.
As a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation herself, Lloyd has a unique understanding of how difficult it is for her clients to tell their life stories to strangers. Born in a neighborhood in England where "the boys got locked up and the girls got pregnant," Lloyd left school at age 13 to support her alcoholic mother. After working in factories and restaurants at first, she soon engaged in illegal activities for fast cash. She began to drink heavily, smoke weed, and sniff speed and coke. She was raped and was hospitalized for suicide attempts three times. Seeking security and affection, she entered relationships with older men while ignoring social workers and child psychiatrists.
At age 17, she moved to Germany to find a job but soon found herself broke. Desperate for money she entered the world of commercial sex when she began stripping. "I turned my first trick in a strip-club in Munich, while tears ran down my face, telling myself that I would simply do this until I could make enough money to go home," Lloyd wrote on GEMS Web site.
But like most child victims of commercial sexual exploitation, Lloyd couldn't escape her abusive pimp. For two years, she worked as a prostitute for him. She only got out after he tried to murder her and the police was searching for him. Finding refuge in a church, Lloyd fought her drug addiction and regained her health. She then moved to the U.S., where she obtained her GED and a BA in psychology. While working for The Little Sister Project with adult female prisoners in 1997, she developed a youth component for 16 to 21 year-olds. Lloyd understood the world these prostituted girls were living in and out of her desire to help she founded GEMS a year later. Lloyd still has a deep scar of 17 stitches running across the palm of her right hand, reminding her of her last fight with her pimp and her responsibility to help those in similar situations.
While Lloyd's personal story took place in Europe, all of her clients in New York have gone through very similar experiences. But the problem is not isolated to the city. The commercial sexual exploitation of domestic children has become one of the fastest growing forms of modern day slavery in the United States. The problem increased after international borders opened and children were trafficked across to work as prostitutes. But while public attention is occasionally given to international victims, American-born prostituted children are often scorned or simply ignored.
"People care about international trafficking," Lloyd says. "But if we talk about this issue as prostitution, people care less." Lloyd says that the glorification of the pimp culture in the U.S. has contributed to the problem and that the public chooses to ignore its severity. "People are not going to Hunts Point at two o'clock in the morning," she says. "There's a culture of ‘something like that doesn't happen here.'"
But the reality of the problem became evident in a 2001 study by the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Work, the first comprehensive research on the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It estimated that more than 286,000 U.S. children are at risk of being prostituted annually. "The benefits of economic globalization, internationalization, and free trade have brought with them an unanticipated set of social problems," wrote Richard J. Estes and Neil Alan Weiner, co-authors of the study. "Among them is what appears to be a dramatic rise worldwide in the incidence of child exploitation. Among the most virulent forms of this exploitation is child sexual exploitation."
But the research findings are undermined by the fact that the numbers are only estimates. Several other studies have contradicted the statistics and some critics charge they are widely exaggerated. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, for example, said in 2005 there were only 7,000 reports of endangered runaways and 774 reports of children involved in prostitution. But ECPAT-USA - a Brooklyn-based organization which works towards ending child prostitution, pornography and trafficking for sexual purposes - estimates up to 600,000 U.S. children are prostituted nationwide.
The difficulty of identifying these victims of child prostitution and human trafficking became evident during the research of the Vera Institute's New York City Trafficking Assessment Project. Funded by the National Institute of Justice, the project was initially a response to criticisms of the vague statistics and their reproduction. But the goal to assess the scope of the problem in New York quickly turned out to be impossible to accomplish. Therefore, the focus shifted to creating tools which could help community-based organizations identify trafficking victims.
"We found that the agencies didn't collect standardized data," says Nicole Hala, the project's senior research associate. "It's a hidden population. One place where they might fall through the cracks is when law enforcement officials don't recognize victims of trafficking."
In order to find out where else these victims fall through the cracks, the project developed a questionnaire, which is currently being tested by local agencies in interviews of potential victims. The questions are as simple as "Have you ever received anything of value, for example, money, housing, food, gifts, in exchange for any type of activity involving sex?" Or "Did anyone you worked for or with ever threaten to harm you or people close to you, like family or friends?" Through a series of such questions, social workers will be able to identify victims of human trafficking and child prostitution. "If we do have such instruments, we'll have a better understanding of the extent of the problem," Hala says.
One of the biggest roadblocks in accurately determining the number of domestic child prostitution cases is that not all incidents take place openly on the streets. The commercial sexual exploitation of children is an underground industry and awareness among the general public is low. Massage parlors and other indoor establishments where children are prostituted are kept from the public eye. Pimps usually provide their underage victims with false identification, so that police officers don't always recognize a prostituted minor. In addition, victims are afraid to come forward fearing their pimps might hurt them or their loved ones, or out of fear of being criminalized for their actions.
These fears are what prostituted children have in common with victims of human trafficking and the pimps' modus operandi often equals that of traffickers. "Pimps are an omnipresent reality among street girls and girls that are trafficked as part of regional and national sex rings," Estes and Weiner wrote. And even though only a small minority of pimps is part of larger criminal networks, they have a strong presence at the local level in cities like New York. Their methods are always very similar. "Most pimps manage only one to three girls at a time," Estes and Weiner wrote. "In general, organized crime units tend not to be involved with children younger than nine years of age - not out of a sense of morality but because such young children are ‘too difficult' or ‘too hot' to handle."
Their victims are often, although not exclusively, runaway girls from lower-income communities who seek refuge in drugs and alcohol to compensate for emotional and family problems. "Most are responding to what they experience as a confusing, often impossible, set of social and emotional issues over which they feel little sense of control," Estes and Weiner wrote. "These include family dysfunction or breakup, family history of substance abuse, and personal histories of physical or sexual abuse." Lloyd said about 70 percent of the girls GEMS serves have been in the child welfare system at some point in their lives, and almost all of them have been sexually abused before they were prostituted.
Estes' and Weiner's study - which involved talking to victims, law enforcement agencies, public human service agencies, traffickers and "customers" - established that the use of "survival sex" as a means for runaway and throwaway children to get by, as well as the pre-existence of adult prostitution markets in communities with large numbers of street youth, are driving forces behind child sexual exploitation. Some of the kids gather in places where adult prostitution is prevalent and enter the industry that way. Others are approached by pimps who prey on them outside group homes, youth shelters and schools. In most cases the pimps establish contacts with these emotionally and financially unstable youth by acting as their boyfriends or offering economic incentives such as money, food and shelter. The children are lured into what they believe are romantic or amicable relationships and become victims of a calculated scheme.
Take Chanel's case, which was related by Leidholdt at the New York State Judicial Training Institute in November of 2006, for instance. While she wasn't prostituted until she was an adult, Chanel first fell for her future pimp John when she was only 16. As a child, Chanel had been sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend and she blamed her mother for not protecting her. Four years older, John was like the father figure she never had. He gave her a sense of family she had never experienced before. They married and Chanel got pregnant. She thought the family was complete, but John started beating her. After one of his attacks she went into premature labor. John, Jr. was born. John's attacks grew more violent.
Chanel took refuge in a domestic violence shelter where she rebuilt her life. But when John approached her again she still felt an emotional connection. "We were still married, and the idea of marriage was very important to me," Chanel said. "I thought that we could live together and be a normal family." But John hadn't changed. The beatings started shortly after the two reunited. Each time, John apologized with fresh flowers and Chanel's attachment to John grew despite the abuse. Then one day a woman approached her claiming that John was her pimp and that he managed several girls. When Chanel confronted John, he denied the allegations, then beat her and apologized.
When John finally admitted he worked as a pimp, he said it was only temporarily to make enough money to buy a house for the family in Philadelphia. He promised Chanel could attend college and that he would eventually get a real job. To speed things up he wanted Chanel to temporarily work the streets like the other girls. "I did what he wanted me to. He told me where to go, how long to go, what to do, what prices to charge, what brand and kind of condoms to use," Chanel said. "He demanded that I give him all of the money I earned. If I didn't give him all the money, he would beat me."
Chanel hated being a prostitute, but whenever she refused John hit her. Once he beat her with a mop so severely that the handle broke. The other girls were treated the same. "He kept a lot of different women: CC, Tasha, Foxy, Toni, Chrissy, Lisa. At least 20 in the two years I was with him," Chanel said. "He was very abusive to them. At least as abusive as he was with me. After he beat one of us, he would make us show our injuries to the other women. It was a lesson about what would happen to us if we stepped out of line. He used a pimp name - ‘Obsession.'" In addition to the beatings, "Obsession" also employed psychological abuse. Every time Chanel wanted to quit, John threatened to hurt her sister if she didn't follow his orders or to report her illegal activities to the police.
Pimps like John employ this kind of physical and psychological abuse in order to keep their girls prisoners. In addition, there are widely practiced rules like the "pimp arrest" on which they operate. During the pimp arrest, a group of pimps circles a prostitute if they encounter her on the sidewalk. She has to kneel and stay there with her head down until her pimp "rescues" her. "The creativity and the intelligence that some of these people put into doing this business and creating a psychological fear and dependency is amazing," Scarborough says. "If that can be put to good use you could be talking about some extremely productive people."
Instead, the pimps use their creativity to target increasingly younger victims. Sergeant John T. Moynihan, in charge of the NYPD's Human Trafficking Task Force, witnesses this phenomenon in New York City firsthand. At a human trafficking forum sponsored by the New York County Lawyers Association last year, Moynihan explained that his officers have discovered prostituted children as young as 12 years old. "And we have seen many more domestic cases than international ones," Moynihan said. "Some of them are straight-up kidnappings from the tri-state area."
Child trafficking in the U.S. usually occurs from rural to urban areas, but also areas dominated by tourists or workers away from home, since local demand is significant. The "customers" of prostituted children come from a variety of backgrounds. They are usually, but not always, adults. They include pedophiles and sex tourists, but also members of the military, truck drivers, seasonal workers and conventioneers. What they all have in common is their taking advantage of a child's vulnerability while usually not identifying themselves as pedophiles. The commercial "reimbursement" for the child's sexual performance takes place in form of cash or something else of value to the child like food, shelter, clothing, video games, drugs, or even affection.
The circumstances these prostituted children live in carry with them a number of health risks. Besides the physical violence many prostituted youth experience, they are also at risk of sexual transmitted diseases and mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder. As a result suicide attempts among prostituted youth in New York City are widespread, according to the University of Pennsylvania study.
So in the absence of Scarborough's Safe Harbor Act, what is currently being done to help these children and prevent others to enter this life? On the federal level, there is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which is part of the larger Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. It passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed by President Clinton into law on Oct. 16, 2000. It was reauthorized in 2003 and 2005 and is currently up for reauthorization.
Amongst other things, the act defines "severe forms of trafficking" as "sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age." Under this definition, any prostituted child in the U.S. under the age of 18 would be a victim rather a perpetrator.
But critics of the act say it only applies to children who have been trafficked into the country and disregards thousands of American-born victims who are exploited for commercial sexual purposes. "There's a difficulty between federal and state laws," says Carol Smolenski, executive director of ECPAT-USA. "In some cases American children in prostitution are not considered trafficking victims."
As part of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition, Scarborough, Lloyd and Leidholdt worked to grant American-born children the same rights as international trafficking victims. They successfully lobbied for New York's Human Trafficking Law, which was signed by Gov. Elliot Spitzer in June and became effective Nov. 1, 2007.
The bill adds the crime of labor trafficking and sex trafficking to the state's Penal Law. Under the law, a person commits the crime of sex trafficking "when he or she intentionally advances or profits from prostitution by (i) providing the victim with certain drugs; (ii) using materially false or misleading statements; (iii) withholding or destroying government documents, including passports or immigration documents; (iv) debt servicing; and (v) force or a plan or pattern of coercive conduct."
Similar actions are prohibited under the crime of labor trafficking, which is defined as compelling or inducing another person to engage in labor by such means. Under the new law, the crime of labor trafficking is a class D felony with a sentence of up to seven years in prison. Sex trafficking is a class B felony with a maximum sentence of 25 years imprisonment.
The law has been lauded by human rights activists as the country's most effective anti-trafficking legislation. Ambassador Mark Lagon, director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said at the NYCLA forum that the new law "is to date the best model law for our nation."
Among all the praise, however, critical voices have emerged complaining the law doesn't do anything about the practice of jailing and abusing of prostituted children. "Certainly it would penalize the customers of trafficked children. It quite severely penalizes the traffickers in children themselves," Leidholdt says. "But it doesn't do anything about actually assisting these child victims." Therefore, Leidholdt sees the Human Trafficking Law only as part one in a two-step process to protect the trafficked youth in New York City. Part two is the Safe Harbor Act.
Some critics also charge that the distinction between labor trafficking and sex trafficking compromises the effectiveness of the law. "Although it is good to have a law against trafficking in the state, one of the major problems is that it separates the definitions of labor and sex trafficking, making trafficking into sex work a crime with a higher penalty," says Sapna K. Patel, a staff attorney at the Urban Justice Center's Sex Worker Project. "Both should have the same penalties if the state is to take trafficking seriously."
The center's Sex Worker Project was created in December 2001 as the first and only program in the country to provide legal services, legal training and advocacy for sex workers. The center believes that, by making sex trafficking a more severe crime than labor trafficking, the law takes attention away from the trafficking problem and instead demonizes the sex industry as a whole. Its philosophy is that the conflation of sex work with human trafficking harms both the sex workers caught in the confusion and the fight against trafficking.
The center's criticism is an example of the prostitution debate as a whole, whether prostitution is the oldest profession or the oldest oppression in the world. Advocates of the oppression model, like Llyod and Leidholdt, believe exploitation, abuse and misery are intrinsic to the sex trade. They dislike the term sex worker because they believe prostitution always involves coercion of some kind. "I have never seen a happy prostitute," says Leidholdt, who has researched brothels in the U.S. and Europe.
Advocates of the profession model like the Urban Justice Center on the other hand prefer the term sex worker over prostitute. They believe that, while exploitation and oppression exist in the profession, many women have entered the trade freely and enjoy their work. "Sex workers are individuals whose reasons for engaging in sex work - and leaving it - are personal, economic and social - as complex as anyone's reasons for involvement in any type of work," the center's media kit reads.
The debate has been as old as prostitution in the U.S. itself. During the American Revolution the army leadership disliked the presence of prostitutes, who followed the Continental Army, because of a fear of spreading venereal diseases. Prostitution flourished in mining towns of the Wild West during the gold rush in the 19th century. But prostitutes also served an upper class clientele in parlor house brothels in the east. Prostitution was illegal under the vagrancy laws, but they weren't properly enforced until Congress passed the Page Act of 1875. In 1908, the Bureau of Investigation was founded to investigate sexual slavery, which was called white slavery then. But prostitution continued to grow in the 20th century and when New York City eliminated license requirements for massage parlors in 1967, many became brothels. In 1970, Nevada allowed the first licensed brothels.
More recently in 2005, the current Bush administration picked up the fight against prostitution when it introduced the anti-prostitution pledge, which requires all organizations receiving U.S. assistance for programs combating HIV/AIDS to have a policy against prostitution and trafficking into sex work. The pledge has encountered harsh criticism by sex work advocates. They say sex workers are part of the solution not the problem to prevent HIV/AIDS and that they can't be expected to partner with groups that denounce them.
The Urban Justice Center and other critics of the government's anti-prostitution campaign also believe that by legalizing prostitution, the industry could be better controlled and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes could be better prevented. Many feel America's inability to deal with prostitution as a reality has contributed to the problem of child sexual exploitation. But since a federal law to legalize prostitution, like it is done in the Netherlands or Germany, seems out of question, these debates don't actually help these children.
In the fiscal year 2006, the U.S. government spent $28.5 million for domestic anti-trafficking programs to identify and protect victims of trafficking. The FBI and the Department of Justice's Criminal Division focused on the commercial sexual exploitation of children through the Innocence Lost Initiative. This initiative, however, resulted in only 103 open investigations, 157 arrests, 76 indictments, and merely 43 convictions.
Smolenski feels frustrated by this low success rate. She believes many trafficked and sexually exploited children fall through the cracks because of poor coordination among the agencies responsible for these children. "One huge problem is the disconnect between the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services," she says. "The regulations require kids to be interviewed by DOJ to be certified. Sometimes they just can't and sometimes DOJ doesn't believe their story."
Another factor, Smolenski says, is the lack of training law enforcement practitioners have in identifying victims. "We know that most judges don't know anything about trafficking," Smolenski says. "The Department of Justice has some training but it's on such a small scale." Ambassador Lagon agrees with Smolenski's assertion. "I think judges need to be trained about this as a distinct crime. It is a new frontier and judges and officials need to be given an understanding of what it involves," Lagon said at the trafficking forum.
What Smolenski criticizes most about current approaches to fight child prostitution is "the overemphasis on law enforcement at the expense of a victim centered approach." She blames current state laws for the ineffectiveness in recognizing and helping trafficking victims. "The law requires trafficking victims to cooperate with law enforcement. In order to receive help, they have to cooperate," Smolenski says. "But it's very difficult for trafficking victims to come forward."
Smolenski's non-profit is the American chapter of an international organization with over 80 groups in 70 different countries. Some of them are small; others are large coalitions of NGOs. While ECPAT doesn't directly engage with the victims, it conducts research on the scope of child prostitution, works to promote more effective governmental policies and trains law enforcement how to spot prostituted and trafficked youth. Among ECPAT's prevention work is a campaign to hang signs in New York City's airports and to run in-flight videos to educate travelers both visiting and leaving the U.S. about the crime of child prostitution.
To fight the home grown problem, ECPAT and the International Organization for Adolescents launched the New York City Community Response to Trafficking in Oct. 2002. The project was a cooperation between several New York based organizations, including the Bronx County District Attorney's Office and the NYPD. It aimed at identifying victims but after limited success was shut down three years later when funding ran out.
Last year, when the U.S. government reported to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, ECPAT released its own report criticizing the country's efforts in reducing child sexual victimization. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified convention to protect children from sexual exploitation. Only two member nation states of the United Nations have not ratified it - Somalia and the United States. Criticizing this, the report emphasized the U.S. government's failure in collecting adequate data for analysis and its little attention to preventative measures.
Smolenski hopes new laws will guarantee that prostituted children are treated as victims rather than criminals. She agrees with Leidholdt that the Human Trafficking Law was only the first step, and she hopes Scarborough's Safe Harbor Act will eventually be enacted. But she knows the best way to help children who are vulnerable to the calculating mind of a pimp is to prevent them from entering these relationships in the first place. "We have to talk to the girls in schools about how a pimp looks like," Carol Smolenski says. "There should be a national campaign like the one against drunk driving."
Dorchen Leidholdt agrees that without such awareness campaigns and better training of law enforcement officials, even the best anti-trafficking laws will be ineffective. "What is happening is that prostituted people, mostly women and children, many of whom have been trafficked, continue to be treated as criminals," Leidholdt says. "Traffickers and pimps are being basically ignored by our criminal justice authorities on the local and state level, and the buyers who create the economic incentive for trafficking are mostly ignored and rarely arrested and prosecuted."
Scarborough had not yet given up on the Safe Harbor Act and plans to reintroduce it in the upcoming legislative period. "It's going to be our major thrust this year to talk to those who are still in opposition, to see if we can remove their obstacles," Scarborough says. "I am hopeful we can find a way to get pass that one word and pass that bill." Lloyd also plans to continue promoting the act. "We must stop calling these kids teen prostitutes," she says. "There's still a lot of work to do."
This article was my master's project at The Journalism School at Columbia University. Master's projects are housed at Columbia University Libraries. The most recent five years' projects are kept at the Journalism Library, 203 Journalism, and are indexed on the Journalism Library website. Earlier years may be found on the lower level of Lehman Library, in the School of International Affairs.