Experts say former child prostitutes need "24/7 residential care for a long period of time." But with over 100,000 kids competing for 44 beds nationwide, many are out of luck.
In a heart-wrenching LA Times article, Joe Markman reports that many child prostitutes can't simply be returned to their family homes. Richard Estes, a social policy professor at UPenn, says, "Most of the girls that have run away and are on the streets have run away because of sexual abuse." Lisa Goldblatt Grace, a consultant for the Health and Human Services Department, concurs: she says underage prostitutes and sex trafficking victims "lack a safe, stable place to live, and that's part of what made them vulnerable to begin with." Estes says kids who escape prosecution need "a rebuilding and remolding of personality and character." Instead, they end up in group homes, inadequate foster homes, or even prison, on "material witness hold." Only three organizations in the country offer residential programs for former child prostitutes, meaning just 44 beds exist for between 100,000 and 300,000 victims.
Adult prostitution may be a controversial issue, but keeping kids out of the sex trade — and offering help to those who do fall into it — seems like a no-brainer. But Markman quotes former LA detective Keith Haight uttering one of the saddest sentences I've heard in a long time: "A lot of places don't want to take responsibility for girls that are known to be sexually active." The idea that sexually active girls somehow become damaged goods that no one wants to deal with is incredibly depressing, but it's just another illustration of the grim fact that America doesn't know how to help kids who violate a certain ideal of innocence. We try child criminals as adults, because we think "real" kids don't commit crimes — and when kids get involved in sex or drugs, they become "undesirable," even though they are the ones who most need care. According to Markman, there's been a trend in recent years against prosecuting child prostitutes, which is a step in the right direction. But his article drives home the fact that child prostitution isn't just a problem of developing countries — it's happening right here, and we suck at dealing with it.