'This Could Be Your Kid': Law Enforcement Is on Alert: Teen Prostitution Is Flourishing Nationwide. the Girls Are Younger, the Trade Is More Violent-And, Increasingly, the Teenagers Come from Middle-Class Homes. A NEWSWEEK Exclusive
Smalley, Suzanne, Newsweek
Byline: Suzanne Smalley
Like many teenage girls in Minneapolis, 17-year-old Stacey liked to hang out after school at the Mall of America, Minnesota's vast shopping megaplex. Cute, blond and chatty, she flirted with boys and tried on the latest Gap fashions. One day last summer, Stacey, which isn't her real name, says she was approached by a man who told her how pretty she was, and asked if he could buy her some clothes. "He was an older guy, dressed really well," she recalls. "He said he just wanted to see me in the clothes." Stacey agreed, and went home that night with a $250 outfit.
The encounter taught Stacey a lesson: "Potentially good sex is a small price to pay for the freedom to spend money on what I want." The easiest way, she discovered, was to offer her body in trade. Stacey, who lives with her parents in an upscale neighborhood, gets good grades in high school and plans to try out for the tennis team, began stripping for men in hotel rooms in exchange for money to buy clothes--then went on to more intimate activities. She placed ads on a local telephone personals service, offering "wealthy, generous" men "an evening of fun" for $400. All the while, she told her parents she was out with friends or at the mall, and was careful to be home before her midnight curfew.
Stacey's story is enough to make any parent sick with worry. Sadly, her experience is growing more common. Over the last year, local and federal law-enforcement officials say they have noted a marked increase in teen prostitution in cities across the country. Solid numbers are difficult to come by--a government-sponsored study puts the figure in the hundreds of thousands--but law-enforcement agencies and advocacy groups that work with teen prostitutes say they are increasingly alarmed by the trend lines: the kids are getting younger; according to the FBI, the average age of a new recruit is just 13; some are as young as 9. The girls--many fewer are boys, most experts believe--are subjected to more violence from pimps. And, while the vast majority of teen prostitutes today are runaways, illegal immigrants and children of poor urban areas, experts say a growing number now come from middle-class homes. "Compared to three years ago, we've seen a 70 percent increase in kids from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds, many of whom have not suffered mental, sexual or physical abuse," says Frank Barnaba of the Paul & Lisa Program, which works with the Justice Department and the FBI in tracking exploited kids. Adds Lisa Grahn, another Paul & Lisa counselor: "People say, 'We're not from the ghetto.' The shame the parents feel is incredible."
To be sure, many kids come from troubled homes. Some, like Stacey, sell themselves as a way to make quick, easy money. Other girls are recruited by teenage pimps who befriend them at shopping malls and parties, luring them at first with clothes and jewelry, then coercing them with violence. "Everyone thinks they are runaways with drug problems from the inner city," says Andy Schmidt, a Minneapolis detective who helped bust a major Twin Cities prostitution ring. "It's not true. This could be your kid."
In response, local, state and federal officials are starting to clamp down on the crime, which is still treated as a minor offense in many cities. The FBI, working with the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children, recently identified 13 cities--including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, Chicago, Miami, Minneapolis and Dallas--that have juvenile-prostitution problems. In Atlanta, prosecutors used racketeering laws to bust a teen-prostitution ring and win heavy sentences for the flamboyant pimps who ran it. In Detroit, a five-state prostitution operation was uncovered when one of the teenage victims pleaded for help at a shopping mall. And in the last two months, there have been teen-prostitution busts in Stockton, Calif.; Ypsilanti, Mich., and McColl, S.C.
Hoping to build on the success of local busts, the FBI recently launched the Innocence Lost National Initiative, a program to help states and cities go after pimps who prey on teenage girls. …