Nearly one-third of the juvenile prostitutes picked up by police are treated as offenders rather than victims, a nationwide study of teen prostitution found.
Flickr by Juan M Casillas
Police in Los Angeles and San Francisco led the nation in arrests, according to the data returned to researchers from the University of New Hampshire.
The study’s authors estimate that there are between 1,300 and 1,600 juvenile prostitutes in the U.S. However, if large police forces were as active in pursuing the cases as Los Angeles, the nationwide estimate would reach 13,879.
The report did not examine how California's big-city police treat juvenile prostitutes.
But the advocacy group Children of the Night also reports that California police officers work with the organization to render services and counseling to teens ensnared in prostitution. The group lists as allies police in Los Angeles, Santa Ana, Anaheim, San Diego and other parts of the state.
University of New Hampshire researchers conducted the study to give policy makers, advocates and journalists a better sense of the problem of juvenile prostitution and how police tend to deal with it. Their headline finding is that police treat 31 percent of juvenile prostitutes as offenders and 53 percent as victims.
Among the findings:
- Ninety percent of juvenile prostitutes are female and 60 percent have a history of running away. Nearly 60 percent are white and 53 percent live in cities.
- Juvenile prostitutes find 86 percent of clients on the street, 17 percent through an escort service and 14 percent on the Internet.
- Police say 30 percent of the juvenile prostitutes they encounter are aggressive or disrespectful and 45 percent are fearful.
- Police are far more likely to regard a teen prostitute whose activity is reported to them as a victim compared to a teen they encounter on the beat. They are also more likely to treat fearful teens as victims.
The authors conclude that police are generally doing little about the problem, as more than half of the police agencies they contacted provided no information about arrests. They suggest better reporting of cases, possibly with mandatory reporting to the FBI.
Social supports to youths rescued from prostitution also seem to be lacking, based on one news report about a large juvenile prostitution bust. After an FBI investigation found 52 juveniles engaged in “sexual slavery,” experts told the Los Angeles Times that none of the youths were getting the type of help they needed.
At least one, a 15-year-old Sacramento girl held on an unrelated charge, remains in a juvenile detention center, according to a Los Angeles Times check of the children's situations. Others have been sent home or into foster care.
The victims need intensive residential treatment, experts say, and only three such programs exist in the country.
Richard Estes, a social policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on child sexual exploitation, said the "best fighting chance" for victims is "24/7 residential care for a long period of time."
"This is not a quick-fix situation," he said. "It really is a rebuilding and remolding of personality and character."
Typically, such teens are “dumped back in the dysfunctional home, ill-equipped group home or foster care, and [often] disappear back into the underground of prostitution with no voice," Lois Lee, founder of a 24-bed Los Angeles shelter called Children of the Night told the Times.