Where No One’s Looking

The Rhode Island legislature is moving to ban indoor prostitution. The most likely result will be arrests at the spas.  In police raids the women picked up are adults. They say they are in it for the money. Real trafficking is harder to find than through the doors of a storefront. If we want to fight trafficking, especially of children, we should be looking in the parks and under the highway overpass. The New York Times has a 2-part series this week on runaway children…

Around the country, outreach workers and city officials say they have been overwhelmed with requests for help from young people in desperate straits.

In Berks County, Pa., the shortage of beds for runaways has led county officials to consider paying stipends to families willing to offer their couches. At drop-in centers across the country, social workers describe how runaways regularly line up when they know the food pantry is being restocked.

In Chicago, city transit workers will soon be trained to help the runaways and other young people they have been finding in increasing numbers, trying to escape the cold or heat by riding endlessly on buses and trains.

Part 2 describes how girls are pressured to trade sex for shelter and affection, and then induced to work as prostitutes. Getting them out of that life can’t be done with just arrest. Sgt. Byron A. Fassett is one officer who works with girls at risk…

In 2005, Sergeant Fassett created the “High Risk Victim” unit in the Dallas Police Department, which flags any juvenile in the city who runs away from home four or more times in a given year. About 200 juveniles per year fit that description. If one of those children is picked up by the police anywhere in the country, the child is directed back to Sergeant Fassett’s unit, which immediately begins investigating the juvenile’s background.

The unit’s strength is timing. If the girls are arrested for prostitution, they are at their least cooperative. So the unit instead targets them for such minor offenses as truancy or picks them up as high-risk victims, speaking to them when their guard is down. Only later, as trust builds, do officers and social workers move into discussions of prostitution.

Repeat runaways are not put in juvenile detention but in a special city shelter for up to a month, receiving counseling.

Three quarters of the girls who get treatment do not return to prostitution.

Closing the loophole will not make the problem go away. To protect children and other vulnerable people takes commitment of time and money, and success is measured one child at a time. Do we have treatment for children that will keep them away from predators and pimps? Rescue by arrest hasn’t wiped out prostitution in other states. What will make Rhode Island different?

One thought on “Where No One’s Looking

  1. Thanks for posting this piece, Nancy. It seems the poor economy is driving more children into the street. It would be a great idea to suggest to the legislature that funding be allocated specifically to address mental health and other interventions that can prevent kids from getting into prostitution.

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