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Marian Wright Edelman Headshot

The Girl Next Door May Now Be on the Corner

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We rarely see headlines that read: "Prostitute Arrested for Soliciting" because such law enforcement incidents are so commonplace. But behind the thousands of stories about prostitution that don't make their way into the newspapers is the brutal nightmare of child trafficking in America today. One such story is of a 13-year-old girl who ran away to New York City to escape sexual abuse at home. Without friends or money, she met a man who said he could introduce her to someone who would employ her to dance at parties. But the offer turned out to be an entry-level job as a prostitute, and her new "employer" sold her at a rate of $40 for oral sex and $80 for intercourse. Over a period of three weeks, her pimp arranged a series of "parties" where she had sex with more than 20 men.

The commercial sexual exploitation of children is a widespread multibillion dollar criminal industry in which as many as 300,000 children are peddled on our streets, according to U.S. Justice Department-funded studies. Most of them are made to live lives filled with violence, forced drug use and constant threats. They need rescue and support. Yet, while in many states the legal age of consent for sex is 17, there is no minimum age limit for prosecuting a child for prostitution. The costs of commercial sexual exploitation of children are great. In addition to the horribly damaged lives of these child victims, taxpayers must pay millions of dollars for prosecuting and detaining them through the juvenile justice system.

Many of the girls and boys initiated into the terrifying world of prostitution are between the ages of 11 and 14--some as young as nine. The great shame is that so many of them have been thrown away--abandoned by families that will never report them as missing, so no one is looking to rescue them or offer aid.

Among the million and a half children who run away from home each year, traffickers ensnare tens of thousands of them into the sex trade through rape, drug addition, coercion, deception, brute force and abduction. They are transported far from their homes to isolate them from family and friends. In late October 2008, federal law enforcement agents broke up more than a dozen child prostitution and sex trafficking rings operating in several cities involving girls and boys from ages 13 to 17. These youths are sold like cartons of cigarettes and six packs of beer in urban working-class neighborhoods, as well as suburban and rural communities, and purchased online though an Internet sexual slave market.

It is an appalling scandal that our society too often treats these abused and damaged children as criminals instead of victims and condemns them to the pipeline to prison. In the eyes of most state and municipal governments and law enforcement agencies, prostituted children are routinely arrested and locked up and not provided help. So, if a man in his 30s has sex with a 14-year-old (below the age of consent in most states), he could be convicted and sent to prison for the crime of statutory rape. But if the 14-year-old is a "prostitute," she is arrested and faces criminal charges. Virtually all states prosecute children that age for prostitution--even though they are too young to consent to have sex with adults.

In 2002, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention held a Child Prostitution Summit to raise awareness about the commercial sexual exploitation of children and develop a consensus for action. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children launched the Internet Crime Against Children program to go after child predators on the Internet. And the Department of Justice has advanced other initiatives focused on sexually exploited children. But more must be done.

A few states are moving toward providing sexually exploited children a way out. After four years of concerted advocacy, youth survivors of sexual exploitation working together with child advocates and service providers won passage of New York's Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act. This groundbreaking law requires that a young person arrested for the first time for prostitution who is under 16 years of age be treated as a "person in need of supervision," and not a delinquent. Instead of directing them to the juvenile justice system, they would receive crisis intervention and medical services including counseling and protection from pimps in a safe house. They also would have access to long-term housing operated by nonprofit agencies with the mission of helping sexually exploited children.

Family support services can also help by working to prevent abuse and neglect and other crises that confront children and teens. If a child is being raised in a safe, healthy family environment, she or he is far less likely to run away from home. It is vital that we all become more aware of this nightmare of sexual slavery because some of these children could be from your street, your block, even next door.

Marian Wright Edelman, whose latest book is The Sea Is So Wide And My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation, is president of the Children's Defense Fund. For more information about the Children's Defense Fund, go to www.childrensdefense.org.