Q. and A. on Young Runaways

This week The Lede asked our colleague Ian Urbina to respond to reader questions prompted by his two-part series on the growing number of young runaways in the United States, many of whom turn to prostitution to survive. Mr. Urbina’s replies to selected questions are published below.

What is the best way to communicate to these girls that pimps will try to go through this cycle with them? Should we convey the danger to their parents so they don’t send their girls out to this in the first place? What kind of campaign would best reach these girls?
Is there a listing of other organizations nationwide (in addition to GEMS) to fight this ugly cycle? Essentially, what are the best ways to interrupt this cycle of objectification and keep girls and women from being a commodity? These questions NEED answers.

Many readers have asked for ways to get involved with some of the issues highlighted in part two of the series. Some of the best organizations on this topic offer the following ideas:

Polaris Project has published a map showing what legislation is being promoted in various states to control human trafficking. They also have a list of useful phone numbers to call if you believe someone is involved in prostitution.

ECPAT has some more concrete ideas of small ways to help, here and here.

Always we hear about the pimps, dysfunctional families and their children who are victims of both. I applaud all the efforts to help, but I would like to read about the “real criminals” of the story — the adult buyers of these girls and boys. Years ago, as a young nurse working on the night shift at a local medical center, I used to wait for a bus in downtown Seattle and got to observe who pulled up to the corner just south of my bus stop to purchase one of the young prostitutes who stood there. I saw a lot of new cars and business suits. I think it’s well past time to start reporting about these buyers. Why hasn’t it happened to any extent?
-theresa, Seattle

Who are the “clients” that prefer the younger “juveniles”? If that many children are working as prostitutes, and each one has more than one “client” then there are a huge number of men willing to use and abuse very young girls and boys. Who are they? Where are the investigations into their activities? How do we stop them?
-autumn, London

A number of readers asked why we did not address the demand side of the problem. In other words, why we did not take a close look at the clients, typically men, who buy sex from these children. It is a very good question, but the subject was beyond the scope of these articles. It was extremely difficult to find the kids in the articles, to get them to let us into their worlds, find the pimps and get them to talk. After two years, we thought we should move forward with the story. That said, I do agree with the point made by many readers that confronting the demand side of the problem is key to correcting it.

And on that note, I should point out that at least one city, Chicago, has begun a campaign to cut into the demand for prostitution. The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), has created a major coalition, funded by the NoVo Foundation, that is undertaking a broad campaign of public education, legislative advocacy and collaborative work with police departments to curb demand for prostitution as the method for ending the exploitation of needy girls and women. End Demand Illinois strategies can be accessed here.

As part of End Demand Illinois, the Cook County sheriff, Tom Dart, has begun an aggressive program to arrest customers, raising the fine for buying sex in the county, and creating a Trafficking Response Team, consisting of prostitution survivors who try to persuade the girls to escape prostitution. Sheriff Dart’s lawsuit against Craigslist’s Erotic Services Section is another attempt to shut down an entity that facilitates the buying of sex.

Excellent piece, however there is another side to the story: that of teenage boys, many gay and bisexual, whose parents throw them out of the house and wind up prostituting to support themselves. The gender of the prostitute leads to stark differences — young men rarely work for pimps and are more likely to find a “sugar daddy” to take them in off the streets.
-David S, Hoboken, N.J.

This reader is quite right. There is another side to the story. We have touched on a related matter with a story and audio show covering the disproportionate number of homeless kids who are gay, lesbian or transgendered. But for this series we opted to use the second day to look specifically at the sub-set of runaways who fall into the trap of pimp-controlled prostitution. Of the more than 30 police and F.B.I. officials I interviewed on the topic, all said they had almost never encountered a teenage or preteen girl involved in prostitution who was not under the control of a pimp. Teenage and preteen boys were a different matter. Most law enforcement officials and child welfare advocates said that many teenage boys living on the streets engaged in survival sex and more formalized prostitution but they did not tend to work under a pimp. These experts said that the number of girls working as prostitutes is far larger than that of boys. They also said that while there is certainly danger and violence surrounding the boy prostitutes, it was of a different type than that which existed for girls who were controlled by pimps.

I’m concerned about a situation where a 17-year-old girl (with whose guidance?) decides to have her photo in The Times, exposing her life of prostitution. It betrays her chance at a new life. We get to consume her story and put a face to the numbers but what does she get?
-SEW, Brooklyn, N.Y.

This is a fair point to bring up. We actually did extensive interviews with Nicole (the 17-year-old former prostitute), her mother (who is Nicole’s primary guardian) and the social workers at the Maslow Project (who track Nicole’s well being) before we began photographing her. A key part of this process was Monica Almeida, the tireless New York Times photographer who made several trips from her base in Redondo Beach, Calif., to Medford and Ashland, Ore., to capture the lives of the runaways we featured, including Nicole. We made sure that all three parties were entirely comfortable with our use of Nicole’s full name, actual story and images.

As for what she gets, this is also a good question. We touched on it briefly in an earlier answer. It is the best response I can offer to this question.

The F.B.I. agents who worked to bring in over 50 youngsters should be given a heroes’ welcome by the government. This takes discipline and character and a very strong stomach. Teachers need to be aware of the trouble signs and somehow enabled to get the at-risk girls/youth real help. How we deal with this problem certainly is an indicator of our respect for human rights.
ann, Washington

Several readers have asked me what role the F.B.I. plays in fighting the sexual exploitation of runaway children. By pure chance, the series comes on the heels of a major national F.B.I. sting of pimps who prostitute children. With no additional budget allocated to it, the F.B.I. created the unit that ran the sting, called the Innocence Lost initiative, in conjunction with the Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Over the weekend, this unit conducted enforcement actions in 36 cities around the country, leading to the recovery of 52 children who were being victimized through prostitution. Additionally, nearly 700 others, including 60 pimps, were arrested on state and local charges. Here is a state-by-state breakdown of the arrests made. There is also a YouTube video about the program.

To date, the 34 Innocence Lost Task Forces and Working Groups have recovered nearly 900 children from the streets. The investigations and subsequent 510 convictions have resulted in lengthy sentences, including multiple 25-years-to-life sentences and the seizure of more than $3.1 million in assets.

This is perhaps the saddest and most gut-wrenching story that I’ve read in a long time. What can we do to help these children?
-Aileen, New York

Is it legal for families to take a runaway child into their home? Can the children go to school if they are living in another community with a family? Are there any organizations who could help connect families who might be willing to offer a temporary home to children who are living in parks and roadsides?
-E W, Eugene, Ore.

Are there proper ways people could involve themselves without running afoul of the law (notwithstanding the inconsistencies of much family law?) Could you, perhaps, indicate what channels are available in the various states? The ‘rest of the story’ might be what interventions are possible for those who are disposed to act.
-David, Rhode Island

What do we do? I often see evident runaways in NYC, all over. Some of them are obviously drugged out. But some of them are really young and really need help. I have twice escorted a hungry child to the local police station, but I now think that wasn’t the right thing to do. Is there an 800 number an adult who wants to help can call? The police told me they would help these children into halfway houses, but I’m not sure they were telling me the truth. How does one find out the best way to get these young people a place to sleep and something to eat without putting those at risk from their families into further danger? And what is the answer? Some of these kids think they’re better off on their own, but they aren’t. Their life expectancy is pretty low.
-Linda, New York City

It’s actually not a bad idea to take the kids to the police, if they are willing to go. Police officers usually get in touch with local child protective services and will try to figure out where the kid belongs. The other idea is probably to call the National Runaway Switchboard at 1-800-RUNAWAY. They tend to have location-specific information for youth shelters and other social services specifically geared toward children.

If an adult takes in a runaway, the adult is supposed to contact the child’s parent, child protective services and/or the police. But there are often reasons why an adult might not want to do that. Harboring runaways is illegal in some states. In Washington State, for example, the person providing shelter is required to report the minor to child protective services, the police or the parents within eight hours of learning that the runaway is away from home without consent. Otherwise, the adult risks losing immunity from prosecution. In other states, like Nevada, there is more leeway if the child is alleging abuse or neglect. Enrolling such a child in school should not be a problem. Schools usually only check whether the child is living in the local school district but often do not have the capacity to investigate beyond that.

There is a way to offer help in your immediate area. Every school district in the country has what is called a McKinney-Vento homeless liaison. These individuals are the school district representatives who work specifically on behalf of homeless students enrolled in each school. The smartest move would be to contact that individual and let them know that you are available as a resource. You can find a list of regional coordinators at this site. Contact the regional coordinator and ask them to put you in touch with the liaison in your school district area. Another immensely useful site, found here, allows you to click on any state and find local shelters or outreach workers for homeless youths in that state. The site provides contact information for each organization. For general information about laws in each state or issues generally, see the American Bar Association’s site on laws or the National Network for Youth site. The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth also has a really smart report that advises people on how they can set up safe, stable housing for homeless youths in their community.

Ian, great story and fantastic video. My question is about Clinton Anchors. What’s his history — why did he run away from home — and what does he see his future as? He’s 18, an adult, and seems to have a good head on his shoulders. Does he stay homeless and living in the woods, does he get help from a social service group and try to get a job?
-Hoa, Conn.

Clinton was an inspiring character. It took some real work to get him to open up. But when he did, a certain wisdom was apparent. He ran away from home when he was 12. Apparently, his father was very violent. His mother was addicted to meth. But when I asked Clinton to elaborate on what happened at home, he clammed up and looked at the floor. As for Clinton’s future, he seemed like the one most equipped to go somewhere. He is extremely handy with computers and regularly built small computers using things he fished out of trash bins behind technology stores. He said he wants to go to college so that he can try to find a permanent job fixing computers. The Maslow Project has been working with him to try to get financial aid for school. If you want to contact them to lend a hand, you should reach out to Mary Ferrell [mary@maslowproject.com].

Perhaps the question will resonate with your readership more since this story is about American children than, say Afghan, Pakistani, Iraqi, but I pose the perennial query: do these kids get anything at all out of the fact that you’ve shed light on their circumstances? Do you walk away? This is an honest question about how journalism ‘works.’ I can’t claim to be doing any better. Still, it’s difficult not to wonder…
-AZ, New York City


I actually think this is an entirely fair question and I know it’s one that I struggled with in doing the project. At root, there may seem something voyeuristic and exploitative in following these kids around and chronicling their plight without intervening to help them. In fact, during the reporting, this issue came up several times as kids asked us for money or other assistance, which we are not permitted to provide under the newspaper’s guidelines about personal involvement in news stories. Monica Almeida, the intrepid photographer who joined me in following the kids around and sleeping in the woods with them, ran into this predicament as well. Some of the kids got angry with us on this matter. But in the end, the rules for reporters in these cases make sense, in my view. If we’re going to honestly and accurately capture the situations of these runaways and provide a snapshot to readers, we cannot alter the situations by getting directly involved with the kids. We also can only hope that once the story finally runs, readers will be moved to try to help and the overall impact of the story will be much greater having done it the right way.

There needs to be an immediate investigation as to why names aren’t going into the national database — NO EXCUSES — I bet computer update could be done for less than $1,000 a station… Another union protected, lazy sector of society… Sad and sometimes tragic…
-Hetty Greene, New York City

This is actually one of the most surprising things I found in reporting. While there are a lot of police officers who do an excellent job at handling runaways, often going far above and beyond the call of duty, there is still a real problem with compliance with federal law that requires them to enter the missing person reports into the federal database, NCIC. This is hugely important because it is the only way that the police in other jurisdictions will know that a kid is missing. Parents often do not report their kids missing. But when they do, local police officers sometimes respond that they will not open an investigation until the child has been gone for 24-48 hours. Even when they are skeptical, police officers are supposed to begin investigating immediately upon receiving a report about a missing or runaway child. There is also federal law that requires that the police enter the report into the federal database within two hours of having received a report. Regardless of the local police response, parents would be well advised to take the additional step of contacting the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which can help get things rolling in terms of investigating a missing or runaway child. Their hotline is 1-800-THE-LOST or 1-800-843-5678.

I have read some stories about the special problems faced by gay youth runaways and the lack of services to fill their needs. Did the authorities you talked to discuss whether there is an increase in this population as well? Have there been additional resources directed at this target group or are they still being pretty much ignored?
-RAB, Michigan

A fair number of the social workers we interviewed said they were struck by the unusually large proportion of homeless youth who were gay or lesbian. We wrote an article on that subject in 2007, which can be found here.

If the author of this piece developed any connections with local support organizations in Medford, you would do well to post information about how people can donate to assist these young people. Not every state in the U.S. is dealing with double digit employment, but we have been for a quite some time.
-anonymama, Eugene, Ore.

Several readers have contacted me to find out how they can help the kids featured in the article. Oddly, it’s not an easy question to answer. These kids’ lives are already so much in shambles that small interventions do little. However, there is an organization in Medford that works with all these kids and that makes an incredible difference in their lives. It’s called the Maslow Project. Though it has a woefully small budget, Maslow provides runaways with counseling, food, clothes and help with applying for jobs or getting re-enrolled in school, whatever they need. They are probably best suited to take donations or provide honest advice on how someone can help one or several of the kids in the story. The director of Maslow Project is Mary Ferrell and she can be reached at mary@maslowproject.com.

I have lived on and off the street for about 8 years. I am 19. Clinton seems like an amazing individual and every word he spoke was the truest I ever heard. After my last bout of “homelessness” an old professor offered her extra bedroom to me and I now have a good safe place to stay. Yet I find myself wandering the streets often, staying with friends I met that day, street performing and so on even though I don’t really have to right now.

There is something very enticing about the lifestyle. That is not to say that it is without its struggles, pain and so on. It is not for the faint of heart, dull of mind or weak of spirit. The idea of young kids who can’t handle it being forced into the situation breaks my heart. I am glad Clintons are out there to look out for them. I plan to open an optional “home” for free range people to stay at on as needed.
-P.C., Chicago

This reader mentions something that really resonates with what I found in talking with runaways. The reader says he find himself wandering the streets sometimes even when he did not have to and that there is something enticing about the lifestyle. Most of the kids I interviewed were running from pretty awful home situations. But the older youths I interviewed, those who had been on the streets for a while, seemed very accustomed to life on the streets. For some of them there was indeed, as you say, something enticing about the bonds they formed with others in the same situation and the freedom to wander as they pleased. There was a certain pride they took in being able to survive on their own. And it’s this very perspective that makes it tough for social workers and other advocates to try to help reorient the m back into school or to try to help them get a job.

I was a teen runaway in 1981. My boyfriend and I left and were gone for a month — our parents reported it to the police — but we were never stopped, ever. I came home because I knew I wanted to go to college. When the adults in a home are out of control, it is not hard for a teenager to say — wow — I can do this way better myself. Think about what these kids in the article have accomplished — they are finding and using limited resources, and working to create community! You have to be fairly bright to be a runaway. You have to believe you can be better, or deserve better. These kids do not have parents waiting by the phone, wanting to send them to college. But they believe in themselves — we must believe in them too!!
-Sandra, Naperville, Ill.

Quite true, you have to be bright to survive on the streets. One thing that really struck me in reporting this story was the strange mix of naïveté and childishness demonstrated by many of the kids on the one hand, and the smarts and maturity they had to develop on the other. Figuring out how to size people up, where to find food, how to avoid police, how not to attract attention from adults who the kids believe are inclined to report them – these are all acquired skills. And yet, so many of the kids were just as playful and clueless as teenagers you might meet anywhere.

source: http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/26/q-and-a-youth-runaways/?scp=6&sq=child%20sex%20trafficking&st=cse


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