Category: Archive

Voice for the vulnerable

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Mullen, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society in New York, works with young female prostitutes, some as young as 12, who have been exploited and fallen into the hands of the law.
“I see maybe 100 cases a year,” Mullen said recently, speaking after an hour-long phone-in radio show at the studios of radio station WBAI last Saturday, where she and a group of teenagers highlighted the problems faced by young people caught up in the criminal justice system.
The scale of the problem of teenage prostitution in New York City is unknown. Mullen said she thinks there must be “dozens and dozens” of young girls (and boys) caught up in this underworld of exploitation and violence. The U.S. Department of Justice recently put the figure as high as 3 million nationwide.
Places with the highest levels of prostitution are either ones with heavy traffic, or places of urban squalor — or both: under the 59th Street Bridge, at Hunts Point in the Bronx, on Pennsylvania Avenue in Brooklyn, and Long Island City in Queens.
And these vulnerable young people don’t just face the menace of violent pimps and “customers” — there is also society’s prevailing attitudes that, Mullen says, refuse to recognize that they are victims first, not criminals.
“A 12-year-old raped by her father is a good victim,” explained Mullen. “A 12-year-old who has been kidnapped and assaulted — that’s a good victim. But the girls I’ve worked with, they were basically taken in by a pimp and prostituted; that’s a bad victim.”
New York State’s laws on prostitution have not been amended since the 1960s. With the advent of the Internet and new means to sexually exploit children and young people, there has been renewed interest among legislators to update the laws. But some of the most earnest, well-meaning attempts, Mullen argues, don’t actually help the young victims they seek to protect.
In the last two years, a bill has been introduced in Albany that would make loitering for the purpose of prostitution an act of juvenile delinquency.
That means a person under the age of 16 can be arrested and sent to family court, where they can be sent to a juvenile detention center, which Mullen says is hardly the place to help them off the streets.
And because there are not adequate services to really help them off the streets, most kids insist that they are adults, meaning that they are arrested as adults and at most spend a few days in jail before heading straight back to the streets with a lengthening criminal record.
The idea behind the draft legislation, Mullen said, “is to lock [young women] up for [their] own good.”
It’s the wrong approach, she says, but part of the all-too-common attitude toward young people convicted of crimes.
One caller to the radio show had this to say to the teenagers who were cohosting with Mullen on WBAI on Saturday: “You need to get some good moral principles.”
“These kids have been abused,” Mullen continued, speaking specifically about the teenage prostitutes she has represented. “No one has ever taken care of them; this is all that this child knows. They’ve been treated horribly at home and they end up on the streets. Then a pimp convinces them, ‘I’ll take care of you, you’re beautiful, I’ll take care of you.’ “
Then the pimp might ask the young woman a favor — they are going to a party — “I need you to have sex with this friend of mine.”
It’s the slippery slope, the victim eased along by her exploiter’s false promises of affection, money or drugs.
Ninety percent of teenagers involved in prostitution were sexually abused as children, according to the Girls Education and Mentoring Service of New York, which helps young women caught up in prostitution. GEMS statistics say an estimated 80-90 percent of young women in the criminal or juvenile justice system have been physically or sexually abused.
Even when released from custody, most young women end up returning to their pimp, Mullen says, probably the only person who has shown them some form of “kindness.”
“There is an 85 percent recidivism,” she says, for all juveniles convicted of crimes in family court. “But putting children in jail — we spend $130,000 per year on kids in prison. You could send three kids to Harvard for that.”
The courts system in New York is an added layer of frustration for lawyers like Mullen.
“You can have the exact same charge against a child in the Bronx and in Brooklyn and the case in Brooklyn gets dismissed,” she said. “The kid in the Bronx goes to jail.”
According to Mullen, that’s explained by the differing cultures in each prosecutors’ office. Teenagers invariably fare worse in jail than they would if they were to receive adequate help. “They need residential treatment, educational services, psychiatric services, medical attention,” Mullen said.
At the moment, there are no shelters in the city specifically for vulnerable young women. Alternative legislation envisaged by Mullen would create such services. There should also be a means for a responsible parent to go to family court and ask for their child to be taken into care.
At the sharp end of the underworld of teenage prostitution in New York City is Police Sgt. Sue McConnell, who heads a three-person juvenile crime unit.
Her unit has arrested 75 pimps since 2001, but without adequate services to help the young women off the streets, it’s a losing battle.
“We take them right off the street and try to locate a responsible family member and get them help,” McConnell said recently.
Most often, though, the kids end up right back in the hands of their pimp.
“This bill must be really, truly, genuinely defeated,” Mullen said of the legislation being considered in Albany. Her work clearly encounters many frustrations. She admits that she is “basically very angry all the time,” but that recently the issue was given a very positive hearing by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s administration has set up a task force to determine which city agencies come into contact with juvenile prostitutes so that a coordinated policy can be formed.
Help can’t come quickly enough, Mullen believes. She imagines what the first safe shelter for young women might look like.
“It has to have a niceness to it,” she said. “A nice brownstone, where each girl would have her own room. Where people would really care for her. Buy her new clothes if she needs them. Take her out and get her hair done.”
These things are important, she says, because most young women involved in prostitution have only been encouraged to dress up in order to sell their bodies for sex.
The only organization in New York City that directly helps such young women, Mullen says, is GEMS, run by Rachel Lloyd, a British woman who survived being a child prostitute and came to New York as a missionary before founding GEMS. Anyone interested in its history and work, or wishing to make a donation to GEMS can visit the web site at: www.gems-girls.org.

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