Closed Doors and Childhoods Lost: Many Experts Believe Cases of Child Pornography and Prostitution Are on the Rise. Sometimes Prosecutors Focus on the Victims Rather Than on the Perpetrators. (Nation: Sexual Exploitation)

Article excerpt

"When a child is assaulted, it not only is a child-welfare problem, it is a crime, and yet there is a lack of law-enforcement data available for researchers to analyze," declares the first page of a recent Department of Justice (DOJ) bulletin. Little more was known than that welfare agencies reported treating 93,338 sexually abused children in 1999. But conservative estimates in a new national study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, in cooperation with the DO J, puts the number of children sexually exploited in the United States each year at around 244,000.

The new study, The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, was completed in September 2001 by Richard Estes and Neil Alan Weiner of the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania.

Surprisingly, say Estes and Weiner, the commercial sexual exploitation of children is a problem that most often affects those from the middle class. Also, of the estimated 766,686 missing juveniles in the United States last year, including abductees, runaways and abandoned "throwaways," 16 percent likely were victims of sexual exploitation.

Estes tells INSIGHT that he cannot determine if the problem is growing since his study is the first of its kind. Yet clues suggest it is. A study published annually by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), titled Child Maltreatment, claims that child-victimization rates have decreased 0.8 percent since 1998. But the study includes only reported cases of abuse by caretakers and omits categories such as internationally trafficked kids, run aways and throwaways.

John Gaudiosi, an HHS statistician, says frankly that "there could be other children being abused and we wouldn't have a clue." Gaudiosi referred INSIGHT to David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire, a sociology professor who claims "the estimates in the [Estes and Weiner] study have been generated making assumptions that are very speculative." Finkelhor says he thinks the incidence of abuse has been decreasing.

That's the statistical side. Other analysts, such as Help Save Kids (HSK), a group which directly investigates human trafficking, insist the problem is both enormous and growing. HSK Director Christine Dolan refers to it as "the holocaust of the millennium"

Unaware of the HHS study minimizing the problem until informed by INSIGHT, Estes accuses the DOJ of complacency. "There are no statistics on this anywhere; it's very intentional" he says. "Law enforcement turns a blind eye. Cops won't open these closed doors" He believes the problem is at least partially institutional, since police naturally focus on the victims rather than the purveyors.

In December the child-abuse numbers from the Estes/Weiner study were presented at the North American Regional Consultation on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, held in Philadelphia. "Our government sent only three officials who had observer status. They couldn't speak or comment," Estes says. "It reflects tremendously on how ambivalent they are about dealing with me problem."

Not everyone shares the view that authorities simply are in denial. For one thing, the cases of sexual exploitation of children overwhelm resources. "It's an evidentiary nightmare to prosecute" says John Kamin, a New York state district-court judge. "To get to trial is almost impossible." There rarely is enough admissible evidence, he says, and the time involved to investigate and draw evidence from juveniles is extraordinary. Most jurisdictions plead poverty and resist spending more on the problem.

For example, many times police have no way of proving the age of a prostitute. Detective Mark Gilkey of the prostitution unit of Washington's Metropolitan Police Department is all too familiar with such issues. "Many of the kids we lock up are not of age, but we can't get a positive ID," he says. Pimps make their girls carry fake IDs and memorize phony Social Security numbers. …