From the Cradle to the Street

Girls as Young As 11 Are Selling Themselves in New York. Stopping Them May Be Difficult, But Helping Them is Almost Impossible.

Kia remembers her first time well.

"He was a white guy, really old. He was, like, in his late forties," she says, piecing together the details of that night, a year ago, in midtown Manhattan. "He was fat, with a potbelly. He had a good job, I think. He was driving an Expedition."

Sitting in the kitchen of her two-bedroom apartment in East New York, Kia, who agreed to speak only if her real name wasn't used, tells her story with disarming frankness. Small, with a perennial smirk, she rocks back and forth in her seat as the details become more lurid. "I was nervous," she says. "But I was like, 'Hey, I might as well do it. I'm having sex with other guys, so I might as well just get paid for it.' "

"Snow," no longer turning tricks, says she got $80 from her first john: "Money is power. That was all I had at the time."
photo: Sylvia Plachy
"Snow," no longer turning tricks, says she got $80 from her first john: "Money is power. That was all I had at the time."

She was with two other girls that night. All three worked for a pimp she had met earlier in the day. All three got into the customer's car. "He had wanted oral sex, so we charged him a hundred each," she recalls. "Well, actually one of the girls got $150 because he wanted to come in somebody's mouth. And it was not going to be me."

For three weeks, she hit the dark alleys along Pennsylvania Avenue in Brooklyn, the Queensboro Bridge in Long Island City, and midtown Manhattan to turn tricks. "It felt good, day by day, making money," she adds with a forced grin. "I try not to remember any of this. I really do."

Social workers and cops say her experience is typical of prostitutes who work New York streets, but one aspect of her story frightens them—Kia is only 14 years old.

Last week, when authorities in Brooklyn and Manhattan arrested 10 people on charges of trading child porn online, they clamped down on the virtual market for young bodies like Kia's. Counselors and police say another market, a flesh-and-blood one, also thrives. Over the last four years, they've noticed an alarming increase in the number of girls under 18 being pimped on the streets, in clubs, and through escort services.

"The average age is rapidly decreasing, so it's not unusual for us to get girls as young as 12 who may have been sexually exploited for a year or two by that age," says Rachel Lloyd, director of the Manhattan-based Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS).

No one knows exactly how many girls in New York are pressed into sex work, but Lloyd, a former prostitute herself, estimates there are at least 1000 minors—and possibly twice that many—trapped in the industry. "The amount of new girls that are coming in is just mind-blowing," she says. "We're getting a good four to six new referrals a week of girls with some type of sexual exploitation history. It's made me start to question my figures."

One veteran cop, who asked not to be identified but whose division has been monitoring the activities of teenage prostitutes in Brooklyn and Queens, believes the number is in the high hundreds. The NYPD denied repeated requests for official information.

Law enforcement officials have been frustrated by the juvenile code. Under the current statutes, a girl younger than 16 who's picked up for turning tricks can only be ticketed for "loitering for the purposes of prostitution." After a hearing, she can also be classified as a person in need of supervision, or PINS, the lowest level of youth offenders. Once a girl becomes a PINS case, she can be put with a relative or in a group home. The problem is that many girls run back to their pimps—and away from help—before a judge can consider their situation.

A bill seeking to break the cycle is now stalled, for the second time, in the state legislature. Drafted by City Hall and sponsored by Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn of Queens, the measure would allow kids to be held until their cases are heard. They could then be placed in locked facilities where they would receive counseling and support.

"We, as prosecutors in the juvenile area, believe that the present state of the law is insufficient to meet the needs of these particular kids," says Peter Reinharz, former chief of the city Law Department's family court division, who helped write the legislation. "Law enforcement is handcuffed."

In April, the bill passed the senate, again. It is now being held by the assembly's Codes Committee, which will decide whether to call for a full vote. The committee chairman, Joseph Lentol of Brooklyn, argues that the need to mark these girls as delinquent is not strong enough to warrant drastic action. "It really stigmatizes them without first trying to get them the appropriate help," Lentol says. "And unless it's proven to the contrary, we ought not to embark upon such a dramatic change in the law."

Youth advocates like Lloyd are also wary of detaining girls who are already in fragile states. "Lacking any other options right now, I could see that this could possibly be a workable option," she says. "But in practice, sending girls to a secure facility would concern me, because it has to be rehabilitative instead of punitive."

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