She didn't look 13: Long legs and straight black hair added the illusion of years. So she lied that she was 16 when she ran away from her home in the Bronx and got in a car with a man who would change her life forever. It was the summer after sixth grade, and when she arrived at the man's New York City apartment, she was hoping that he would put her up for the night. “Take a shower,” he urged her, she recalled years later. “Get off those clothes.” When she did, the two prostitutes he lived with replaced her tomboy outfit with a black miniskirt, blue blouse, and stiletto heels.
That was the beginning. He soon drove her to Boston, where she spent much of the next three years following the orders of men who saw her body as a playground for people who could pay. While other 13-year-olds were memorizing locker combinations and parts in school plays, she was reciting false addresses to police, perfecting the art of waving at cars, and learning the grim importance of seeing the money upfront. “It was really scary out there,” said the girl, now 17, who asked that her name be withheld. “Every day, I wake up and say, ‘I am so lucky to be alive.’ ”
In a world that happens after midnight, children in the sex trade are the ultimate undocumented population, living in hotels under fake names with false security numbers, frequently moving, sometimes thousands of miles away from home. Uncounted by any census and underreported to police, these children have begun to draw national interest with the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Washington, D.C., convening a national teleconference on the topic this Thursday.
In Boston, a spate of murders of underage prostitutes in 2001 galvanized police and social workers to launch two new programs aimed at sexually exploited teenagers: the A Way Back program and the Bandeli Project, a largely volunteer effort run by former prostitutes. But the work has been frustrating, and after two years police and advocates say they still have no idea if such children number in the dozens – or the thousands – in Boston.
David Deakin, chief of the Family Protection and Sexual Assault Unit at the Suffolk County District Attorney's office, estimated that his office interviews at least one child a month under age 16 who discloses a history of prostitution. “It's a fairly steady problem, and we have a strong sense that we are certainly not seeing the majority of these cases,” he said. “There is pretty credible evidence that there are organized or semi-organized rings of pimps who rotate girls from state to state so that the girls don't become known to law enforcement.”
Records show eight to 12 arrests of juveniles for prostitution in Boston each year over the past decade – less than 4 percent of the 324 prostitution arrests in the city last year. But a recent Suffolk University study of 106 women incarcerated in Boston jails on prostitution-related changes shows that nearly half had entered the sex trade by 17, and that some report starting as early as 10, said Maureen Norton-Hawk, a professor who researches prostitution.
“Once they get recruited into it, it's very, very hard to climb out, because they have so few options,” said Norton-Hawk. Half of the women she interviewed were “on their own” by age 16, she said. “The problem is much bigger than I ever imagined,” said Ra-Shaun Nalls, a social worker with A Way Back, which is run by Roxbury Youthworks, a nonprofit agency contracted by the Massachusetts Department of Social Services to track 16 runaway girls with a history or a high risk of prostitution. “Any given night, we'll see 10 or 15 girls working Chinatown alone, not to mention Chelsea, Blue Hill Avenue, and part of Dorchester and Roxbury.”
While data may be lacking, testimonials are not. Denise Williams, a former prostitute, founded the Bandeli Project to help adult prostitutes, but changed its focus when she realized how many of them actually were teens. Williams, 43, said she entered the sex trade unwittingly at age 14 when she ran away from her North Carolina home with an older man she thought she loved. When they got off the bus in Los Angeles, he took her to the prostitutes walking Hollywood Boulevard, and told her that this would be her job from now on, beating her when she refused, Williams recalled.
She was given a cellphone, a fake Social Security number, and a new identity – “Sparkle.” Her quota was $1,000 on weekends, $500 on weeknights, all of which she handed over to her pimp, Williams said. When she was 16, she secretly hoarded cash to finance an escape, but years later, found herself back on “the track.”
“It's a cult like thing, and you have been brainwashed into thinking that only this person cares for you, everybody who is not in this life is a square,” said Williams, recalling how a pimp would stroke her hair, tell her he loved her, and tell her she ‘did good.’
Williams, who ended up in Boston when her mother moved here, credited God and Pastor William E. Dickerson of Greater Love Tabernacle in Dorchester for finally helping her out of prostitution at 35.
Today, she manages a homeless shelter on Dudley Street and spends much of her free time and own money on the Bandeli Project. Once a week, she runs an after-school program with a former pimp in the Bromley-Heath housing development, telling youth how to avoid men who can spend as long as a year recruiting a vulnerable girl.
On Friday nights, since she hasn't yet raised enough money to buy a van, Williams and her volunteers walk Boston's streets, handing out condoms, fruit, and water to the prostitutes. Pimps ridicule her, Williams said, but she presses on.
“We just told them the kids were not negotiable,” she said. “If they had the kids, it was going to be a problem, and we were coming after them.”
Police say cracking down on child prostitution is difficult because they often can't tell the difference beween a minor under 16 – a victim of child rape under the law – and older teens who are sometimes prosecuted as adults, or are simply let go.
“You hear a lot of discussion about juvenile prostitution, but to actually be able to identify the problem and fix numbers to it, it is very, very difficult," said Lieutenant Gary French of the Boston Police, who spearheaded efforts in Boston to study the problem. “A lot of the time, it operates below the radar screen and it is difficult to pinpoint it.”
Police try to focus their efforts on pimps, but the women and girls who work for them often decline to testify, or disappear. “The only way to hold offenders accountable is if the victim is able and willing to engage in participating in the prosecution,” said Susan Goldfarb, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center, a nonprofit group in the Suffolk County District Attorney's office. “That's a tall order for these girls. It requires a lot of safety, services, and trust.”
Those were luxuries that the teen runaway from the Bronx never had. Not when she was adopted at age 9 into a home where she was allegedly molested by her foster siblings, according to social workers in Boston. Not when she ran away, and took up residence with a pimp who drove her to a street he called “the money tree” in Hunts Point, N.Y., instructing her to watch how the women accosted cars. "I should have left then, but I didn't have no place to go," said the teen.
At first, life there was a bit like family, she said. She spent most of her time baby-sitting a prostitute's son. The pimp fed her, gave her clothes, introduced her to his mother, and told her he was falling in love with her, she said. On her 14th birthday, she even got a chocolate cake with candles that spelled the number “17,” the age he thought she was.
But one day, the pimp and the women who worked for him put her in a car for a trip that she would never forget. “I had no idea where we were going,” she recalled. “When we got there, I asked, and all he said is, ‘This is Boston.’ ”
They eventually moved to a hotel off Route 1, north of the city, and worked the streets of Chinatown. Her first night out, she was frightened by a man who had picked her up, and she fled on foot with no money. “Try again,” she said the pimp told her. “You are going to make my money.”
For the next three years, the system all but ignored her. She was in the car when police arrested her pimp for probation violations, but they let her walk away, only asking how long she had worked for him, she said. She was arrested twice in Boston, but authorities never uncovered the fact that she was a child. Once, she was even brought before a Boston judge, she said. “They gave me a map and told me not to go to the places on the map,” she recalled.
She finally divulged her real age to authorities: the first time, to a Boston-area hospital, where she ended up after being abused by a pimp, and again in Atlantic City after being arrested twice in 24 hours. Each time she disclosed her age, New York social workers sent her back to her adoptive home in New York, she said. And each time, she ran away again, back to the streets. Eight months ago, she finally met Nalls of A Way Back, who helped her leave the streets.
“I call him almost every day,” she said. “This is the first place I'll go to tell my problems.”
These days, she is working toward a GED and dreams of becoming a judge. Time has passed, but in a matter-of-fact voice, the teen can still recall the litany of violence she survived: The click of the gun a customer pulled on her in a parking lot after sex, demanding his money back. The umbrella she was beaten with the night she ran away from a pimp, escaping – as it turned out – into the arms of another pimp.
Authorities may have a hard time finding the teenage prostitutes, she said, but she can spot them in the flash of a smile. “You can tell that they are underage, just by the way they act,” she said. “There's a whole bunch of girls.”