How can you tell when an issue has gotten traction? When it spawns its own urban legend.
Last year, King County’s Committee to End Homelessness issued a fact sheet that included this alarming stat: “In a recent study by Seattle Police Department, 76 percent of unaccompanied minors were approached by either a known gang member or pimp in less than 45 minutes.” This “45-minute rule” is still a meme on the move: the director of one of the area’s leading service providers for at-risk youth repeated it and told me she’d heard it from a member of SPD’s downtown precinct.
“That study has been altered, revised and bastardized beyond recognition,” says another cop who knows better, Captain Eric Sano (above), commander of SPD’s Vice and High Risk Victims Unit. “The actual study was from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They say that one in three teens will be recruited by an exploiter. In 2009 we tested that theory in Westlake Park. We put a very youthful female member of the department by the fountain and within 45 minutes she was approached by two members of the Westside Street Mobb” – a local gang notorious for “breaking” and pimping young girls.
The 45-minute rule appears to be a conflation of that incident and studies like those cited by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which reports that 70 percent of youth on the street and 30 percent in shelters become victims of sexual exploitation, including “survival sex” exchanged for food, drugs and/or a place to stay.
The fact that it’s been so readily misstated and bruited suggests two things about juvenile sex trafficking: It’s getting a lot of attention (also evidenced by the fact that it now has its own anonym — CSEC, for “commercial sexual exploitation of children”), and many things about are still unknown or misunderstood.
Qualitatively, some aspects of what used to be called “juvenile prostitution” are now well understood, and reaffirmed daily in the experience of the police, advocates and service providers who deal with it daily. First, that its so-called practitioners are much less the willing agents suggested by the term; rather than prostituting themselves, they’re prostituted — conned and coerced by pimps, driven by fear and desperation.
“We’ve come to realize that the vast majority, 80 to 90 percent, were sexually abused as children,” says Val Richey, a King County deputy prosecutor who’s interviewed scores of prostituted teenagers in an effort to build cases against their pimps and johns. “That’s a pretty high correlation. There’s a very high rate of runaway youth involved. Most youth were first engaged in this between the ages of 11 and 14.”
Prostitution, like smoking cigarettes, is something people tend to fall into when they’re young or not at all. “Of all the women I’ve talked to in the business,” says Sano, “95 percent started out as commercially exploited teens — damaged, hurt, abused, neglected, bullied children.” With one difference, he notes, thinking back to the 1980s, when he started as a patrolman in the CD and Yesler was the track: The girls seem younger now.
Juvenile custodians elsewhere report similarly high correlations between sexual exploitation and a history of domestic sexual or physical abuse: 93 to 95 percent in Dallas, 71 percent for sexual abuse alone in Las Vegas.
“The question has to be asked,” says Val Richey, a King County senior deputy prosecutor who handles sexual exploitation cases. “Why is that correlation so high? Can you really say it’s a voluntary election at that point? Or is it a decision made at the end of a long series of impacts?”
One impact in that series is homelessness, a common sequel to domestic abuse and, in the words of Leslie Briner, of the homeless-service nonprofit YouthCare, “an incredibly big risk factor for being sexually exploited.” The county’s Committee to End Homelessness calculates that 4,000 to 5,000 young people spend some part of each year homeless. Most return home fairly soon; but about 1,000 do not.
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