By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
"The study showed that any given 'young' looking girl who is selling sex has a 38 percent likelihood of being under age 18," reads a crucial passage in the explanation of methodology. "Put another way, for every 100 'young' looking girls selling sex, 38 are under 18 years of age. We would compute this by assigning a value of .38 to each of the 100 'young' girls we encounter, then summing the values together to achieve a reliable count."
This is dense gibberish posing as statistical analysis.
When the team went on to conduct its full statewide study, it simply treated this 38 percent success rate as a constant. Six new observers were then turned loose to count "young-looking" sex ads on online classifieds sites like Craigslist and Backpage.
Certainly we have a stake in this discussion. And we do not object to those who suggest an apparent conflict of interest. We sat quietly and did not respond as the WFN held symposiums across America—from Seattle to Miami—denouncing Backpage. Indeed, we were never asked for response.
But then we looked at the "science" and the media's willingness to regurgitate, without question, these incredible statistics. In the interest of a more informed discussion, we decided to write.
That total count was then multiplied by .38 to come up with a guesstimate of how many children were being trafficked.
"This is a logical fallacy," says Steve Doig, the Knight Chair in Journalism at Arizona State University, who reviewed the study at our request. "Consider this analogy: Imagine that 100 people were shown pictures of various automobiles and asked to identify the make, and that 38 percent of the time people misidentified Fords as Chevrolets. Using the Schapiro logic, this would mean that 38 percent of Fords on the street actually are Chevys."
But the Georgia sponsors were happy with the results—after all, the scary-sounding study agreed with what they were saying all along. So the Women's Funding Network paid Schapiro to dramatically expand the study to include Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Texas. (Georgia's Kayrita Anderson sits on the board of the Women's Funding Network)
The Women's Funding Network says it would ultimately like to have the study running in all 50 states.
The count of online classifieds featuring "young women" is repeated every three months to track how the numbers change over time. That's the source of the claim of a 64 percent increase in child prostitution in Minnesota in a matter of months.
But that's not how a scientific study is supposed to work, says Finkelhor.
"They don't tell you what the confidence intervals are, so these changes could just be noise," he says. "When the Minnesota count goes from 102 to 112, that's probably just random fluctuations."
There's a more fundamental issue, of course.
"The trend analysis is simply a function of the number of images on these sites," Finkelhor says. "It's not necessarily an indication that there's an increase in the number of juveniles involved."
Despite these flaws, the Women's Funding Network, which held rallies across the nation, has been flogging the results relentlessly through national press releases and local member organizations. In press releases, the group goes so far as to compare its conjured-up data to actual hard numbers for other social ills.
"Monthly domestic sex trafficking in Minnesota is more pervasive than the state's annually reported incidents of teen girls who died by suicide, homicide, and car accidents (29 instances combined); infants who died from SIDS (6 instances); or women of all ages murdered in one year (37 instances)," reads the study.
Of course, those other figures are rigorously compiled medical and law-enforcement records of actual documented incidents, so it's not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison.
The police who tally many of those actual statistics—as well as records of real face-to-face encounters with juvenile prostitutes—don't seem to be very impressed by the statistics put forward by the Women's Funding Network.
"The methodology that they used doesn't really show the numbers that back it up," says Sgt. John Bandemer, who heads the Vick Human Trafficking Task Force in St. Paul. "We take it with a grain of salt."
The experts we consulted all agreed the Schapiro Group's published methodology raises more questions than it answers. So we went to the Schapiro Group to ask them.
Beth Schapiro founded the Schapiro Group in 1984, starting out mostly with political consulting. The bulk of the group's work, Schapiro says, consists of public opinion research. In 2007, the group installed its own phone-banking center, and the group's website advertises services ranging from customer satisfaction surveys to "voter persuasion calls."
Counting hard-to-find exploitation victims wasn't exactly in the company's repertoire when it was asked by A Future Not a Past to devise a study on juvenile prostitution in 2007, but Schapiro jumped at the opportunity.
The Georgia studies included efforts to count juvenile prostitutes on the street, at hotels, and in escort services, but they also marked the debut of the problematic online classifieds study that would later be reproduced in other states.
In a phone call this month, Schapiro insisted that her study was the first effort ever to try to scientifically determine the number of juvenile prostitutes—a claim that would likely surprise the authors of dozens of previous studies, several of which are footnoted in her own report.
When we asked Schapiro and Rusty Parker, the leader of the classifieds study, to fill in some of the missing pieces in their methodology, they had a hard time coming up with straight answers. In fact, Parker couldn't remember key information about how he constructed the study. When asked where he got the sample pictures used to calibrate the all-important 38 percent error rate, he wasn't sure.