The Children's Hour

The fight for legislation to help young prostitutes

This resistance has led to a version of Safe Harbor that is far more likely to pass and leaves the state penal law intact. If passed, convicted minors will be sent to residential safe houses, and though they'd still get juvenile records, they'd at least be spared the further trauma of jail. Training for vice cops on how to apprehend suspects without compounding the psychological abuse the children have likely encountered will also remain as part of the revised bill.

Advocates cautiously call it a step in the right direction. "We're not getting every thing we want this year," says Legal Aid vet Kate Mullin, "but next year we'll try again."

They may get more of what they want sooner than later if a broader and unrelated state bill on sex trafficking is passed that would "recognize that not everyone who engages in prostitution does so willingly," says sponsor Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Democratic assemblymember from the Bronx. It is his personal belief, he says, that "a 14-year-old, a very young person, cannot legally consent" to selling sex. But when you say the word "decriminalize" to him or his staff, the qualifying and backpedaling begin.

Dominique Vickers (right) with GEMS volunteer Khalia Joseph
photo: Staci Schwartz
Dominique Vickers (right) with GEMS volunteer Khalia Joseph

"We'll see how it all rolls out," says Rachel Lloyd, founder of the Girls' Education and Mentoring Project (GEMS)—New York's only nonprofit dedicated to helping girls as young as 12 years old get out of prostitution and start new lives. "Honestly, I'm all right with [the revised Scarborough bill] because I'm now recognizing how long this all takes. The important thing is the emergency housing. You have to have that in place first."

Dominique Vickers is one of Lloyd's many success stories. At the City Hall rally the petite, baby-faced 19-year-old told the audience in a voice so soft you had to move in to hear her that she'd been "in the life" for three years after struggling in an abusive home. She spoke for just a brief moment before finishing with a warm but abrupt thank you. Afterward she said she'd planned to talk more about her history but stopped because she didn't want to start crying. She has a lot to look forward to now. Since finding refuge at GEMS, she has turned her life around with a job as an outreach coordinator at Lloyd's not-for-profit, and next year she hopes to pursue a degree in education from Hunter College.

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