Some change comes quietly.
But something has changed, those who watch such things will say, in the way Seattle and its environs view the girls and boys selling their bodies from the cities’ sidewalks and hotel rooms.
Those who make it their business point to the concrete — a first-of-its-kind shelter for prostituted youth, a new law that raises the stakes for those selling sex with children, a win against a pimp ring — and pass along the word of mouth that the kids are getting younger, the pimps a little meaner. But the hint, they’ll quietly allow, is that something larger and less tangible is happening.
About that crime of the shadows — child prostitution — the public is starting to care.
Those youths — at least the girls, initially — are the target of a joint Seattle-King County effort scheduled to launch this spring. The first of its kind in the area, the program is designed to help child prostitutes break away from their pimps, and the life, by providing shelter and treatment.
“The perception is that they are just prostitutes, nobody cares,” said Sean O’Donnell, a senior deputy prosecutor attached to the special assault unit. “The perception is, they’re signing up for this. …
“They’re people. They’re girls. They should be worrying about what they’re wearing to their high school dance and not whether they’re going to bring in quota.”
That’s a King County prosecutor — a law-and-order guy whose office walls carry a portrait of Winston Churchill and a clipping of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer — arguing that children who are technically criminals are victims. The fun part for O’Donnell and his cohort, at least by his estimation, is that jurors have begun to agree.
A recent study commissioned by the City of Seattle identified 238 children involved in prostitution in the city. The total number, according to the assessment, was likely 300 to 500 kids in the Seattle area.
Some of those girls come from loving homes, said Julie Kays, the special assault unit deputy prosecutor. Others have fled sexual abuse at home or fallen into drug addiction.
Regardless of their circumstances, Kays said, the girls tend to offer similar stories. They fell in love, their man asked them to make some money selling sex, and they couldn’t get out.
Usually there are threats, the senior deputy prosecutor said. Often there is violence.
Always, the money goes straight to the pimp.
That was the situation described by one Beacon Hill teen testifying against Deshawn Clark, a 19-year-old West Seattle pimp recently convicted on human trafficking charges.
Recalling how she ended up climbing into cars at the “fashion show” next to Seattle Center, the young woman described being propositioned by one of Clark’s friends, admitted pimp Mycah Johnson, over ice cream.
Testifying in October during the trial of one of Johnson’s codefendants, the young woman said Johnson alternated between threats and promises of love as she continued to turn tricks for him.
“He played on everything that I went through,” the young woman told the King County jury. “He made me promises that were backed up by promises. I should have known better, because I guess promises are made to be broken.”
The prosecution in which the teen testified ended in vindication for prosecutors, who’d bet that a jury could believe the testimony of prostituted teens and convict Clark on a newly minted charge, human trafficking. Following on guilty pleas by Johnson and four other men, Clark was convicted of pimping several teens as part of a West Seattle gang.
That jurors believed the young women, in that case and others, shows that the public’s view of prostitution has shifted, Kays said.
“That defense — ‘Oh, she’s just a whore’ or ‘Oh, she’s just a prostitute. You can’t believe her.’ — that isn’t going to hold water,” Kays said. “Jurors, through common sense and good sense and, frankly, kindness, are going to see that doesn’t hold true.”
Following on the work of Seattle and King County vice detectives, O’Donnell and Deputy Prosecutor Christina Miyamasu spent much of 2009 working to secure the first conviction under the state’s human-trafficking law. Authorities moved heaven and earth to do it, sending detectives across the country to bring in a reluctant witness in the case against Clark.
The resulting conviction, under a law that Clark’s attorney argued was meant for people smugglers not West Seattle teens, will likely result in a decades-long prison sentence against Clark. And that too would be a change.
Under the state law most frequently applied — commercial sexual abuse of a minor, a lesser offense of which Clark was also convicted — pimping children carries a two-year prison term for a first time offender.
A recent change reclassified the crime as a sex offense requiring registration as a sex offender, but did not increase the penalty. The maximum sentence, a 10-year prison term, is imposed only against those with multiple felony convictions.
Those caught soliciting sex from a child prostitute face a standard minimum sentence of one to three months in jail, though that penalty can be waived through a first-time offender alternative.
Speaking last month, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said that, in his view, the sentences handed to pimps and others benefiting from child prostitution don’t square with the harm done to prostituted girls and boys.
“We’re talking about kids who were taken off the streets and made sex slaves,” Satterberg said. “It’s a very dark secret in our community that most people don’t know about and don’t want to know about. … The demand for this is high, and the supply is being created by young girls.”
While locking up pimps and scaring johns may dissuade some of each, that action does little to move teen prostitutes off the streets.
At present, the state can punish children for selling sex but has little to offer. In an effort to change that, a City of Seattle-King County group is preparing to launch a pilot project to provide assistance to several dozen prostituted kids.
The program, set to launch this spring, will provide safe housing, support and drug treatment to teen girls caught prostituting, said Terri Kimball, Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention Division director for the city’s Human Services Department.
Initially able to care for nine youths at a time, Kimball said the program will offer transitional housing and support to 25 to 30 children a year. That effort — when compared to the hundreds of known child prostitutes in King County — will reach only a fraction of prostituted youths, but marks a first step forward for the region.
“Right now, (the girls) beat us back out to the street,” Kimball said. “There’s no place for them.”
The fledgling effort is not expected to go easy.
Many teen prostitutes, Kimball said, sell sex because they’ve been made to want to or feel they must. They love the men they’re working for, she said, and fail to see the relationship for the one-way street it is.
“In spite of everything they’ve been through, they love their pimps,” Kimball said. “Kids are looking for love and acceptance. She stands to lose all of that if she doesn’t do what he wants.”
Taking a view disputed in the court by defense attorneys, prosecutors like Kayes and O’Donnell contend that control is no accident of circumstance.
Shepherding the prosecution of five alleged members of a West Seattle gang, O’Donnell garnered confessions from four admitted West Side Street Mobb members and a fifth man. In each, the accused admitted to fostering love and fear simply to make a buck.
Describing his approach to the Beacon Hill teen, Johnson, now 20, told the court that what had begun as a dating relationship shifted within weeks of their meeting.
By his account, Johnson told her she needed to “work” so they could have a life together. Once she began working for him, he told her what to charge and demanded she give him every cent.
Johnson, like the others, went on to matter-of-factly describe why he pimped.
“Pimping is a way to make money quickly and easily,” Johnson told the court. “This helped my reputation within the gang. … Being a gang that pimped out girls made the gang sound better to other gangs.”
The counterpoint, vocally offered by friends and family of the Street Mobb defendants, was that the girls and women had chosen prostitution.
Court records and statements outside Clark’s trial attest that several of the teen prostitutes continued to sell themselves as their pimps waited in jail. Some had been prostitutes before meeting any of the men accused.
The men may have profited, the supporters’ argument went, but the girls already wanted to sell sex.
In O’Donnell’s view, that contention is “crap.”
Conceding that somewhere, someone may have chosen to prostitute of his or her free will, O’Donnell asserted that the youths and most others working as prostitutes do so only under absolute duress.
“What’s so offensive to me personally is these pimps who are putting these children out on the street for one reason, and that is cold, hard cash,” O’Donnell said. “They are cruel. They are greedy. And the impact on these young women — whether it’s a rape, an attempted rape, a sexually transmitted disease or simply the shame — will be with them for the rest of their lives.”
Coincidentally, money has also been the hang-up for efforts to combat child prostitution in Seattle.
A collection of city, county and private funds has been tapped for the two-year pilot project to house and treat prostituted youth, Kimball said.
Due to funding cutoffs, though, organizers remain $650,000 short of the $1.4 million needed to maintain the program, Kimball said. Private donors and the United Way of King County have provided nearly half the funding secured.
Despite the difficulty, Satterberg said he’s heartened to see the community making a move.
“For as widespread as this problem is, it’s concerning that there aren’t more facilities that can deal with these kids and their complicated lives,” said Satterberg, the elected county prosecutor. “If you’ve got money, you’ve got promise. And the promise here is that Seattle will do something about this.”