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Child Commercial Sex Exploitation

Child commercial sex exploitation is a devastating and pervasive problem. According to World Vision over ten million young children are caught up in the sex industry-prostitution, pornography and sex tourism.  UNICEF reports another one million children enter the sex industry each year. These are some of the disturbing statistics that Joseph B. Haggerty Sr., Retired Vice Detective, Metropolitan Police Department, Washington D.C. gave to the audience of the Public Safety Writer’s Association annual conference earlier this month. Haggerty Sr. has interviewed over 5,000 prostitutes and hundreds of pimps. He has learned the culture and the language. He is also the author of Shame: The Story of a Pimp. After his presentation, I felt compelled to follow-up to share how law enforcement officers could learn from his experience and assist in reducing this tragedy.

Haggerty Sr. began with some statistics, “There is an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children that are reported missing each year.  Many return home within a short time period, but too many end up on the street under the watchful and exploitive eye of a pimp. An estimated 30-50% of the women working as prostitutes on the street are under the age of 18. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children the average age of the juvenile prostitute is 14.” Vulnerability is a key factor in the sex trade and children are never willing participants. Pimps seek out runaway and homeless youth. Many children are leaving abusive and traumatic home situations and most head to the nearest city where they will become sex slaves within an average of 30 days. These children are dependent on their pimps to provide basic necessities such as food, clothing, shelter and protection. Pimps are experts at isolating them, controlling them and convincing them that the helpers, law enforcement, either work for them or are the bad guys. Victims can be either gender, from the United States or abroad. Law enforcement officers, both in patrol and investigations, can make a difference in the problem of child commercial sex exploitation. Here are four ways:

1. Ask Enough questions

“One of the biggest problems is too many times when an arrest is made of a prostitute not enough questions are asked,” Haggerty Sr. explains. “The officer wants to finish the paperwork as soon as possible and be back on the street.  With the Washington, D.C. police we have a form called a prosecution report which is used in the majority of our arrests.  Patrol officers need to think like investigators and realize this is a great time to gather intelligence.” Haggerty Sr. states the defendant’s home address can be significant. “Many times a pimp will give the women that work for him the same home address,” he says. “Sometimes it's made up.  A knowledgeable officer may know that the address doesn't exist, but instead of writing that information in his report he writes no-fixed address or that the defendant refused to give a correct address. A good investigator would be able to identify the defendant's pimp and the other women working for him just by comparing the home addresses given.” He states the report asks for a list of three family members or friends as well. “These are questions the bail agency will ask, but too many times the arresting officer fails to record this information. This information could lead to the real identity of the defendant as well as her real age.”

2. Document a Complete Description

Haggerty Sr. states another important aspect of the prostitution report is the description section. “Information that should be recorded in any arrest in any jurisdiction is a complete description of the defendant to include moles, scars, tattoos, freckles, eye color, piercings, use of wigs, missing teeth or speech differences (accent, stutter, lisp),” he says. “All of these identifiers can help an investigator or officer compare the defendant to missing person reports specifically juveniles.” Haggerty Sr. shares an example of how good observation and documentation can work. “I had one arrest of a young woman who also had an identical twin sister working the street,” he explains. “I asked her how people were able to tell them apart. She showed me a gap between her front teeth, which her sister didn't have. For whatever reason the young woman had a trial and I was asked to identify her in court. I asked the Judge if it would be alright to leave the witness stand to take a closer at the defendant.  I saw the gap in her teeth and positively identified the defendant.  When I explained to the judge why the closer look was necessary, he was very impressed and considered me a real professional. It was a small thing that made a big impression.” Haggerty Sr. also shares of being able to identify another young woman who was a 15 year-old Winnipeg, Canada run-away by the two distinct freckles she had on the side of her nose. He furthers he identified a 14 year-old Nashua (NH) run-away by the tattoos on her hands. In all these cases, he was observant and utilized databases to identify runaways who were being exploited.

3. Help Create a Complete Rescue

Law enforcement cannot just rescue these children and think they will heal themselves. Systemically, we must be part of a broader solution. A solution that addresses the physical, mental and emotional issues that face children when they finally get away from their abuse. We must recognize they need to be habilitated and without safety, security and mental health services, they will end up back on the streets and in the clutches of their abusers once again. These children are often placed into unprepared foster families or juvenile detention where once again they are in a situation of control.  Although once a child is under arrest it is the courts that make the ultimate decision where the child will be sent, suggestions can be made through social services. An understanding of what programs, such as Children of the Night and Ark of Hope can help an officer make an appropriate suggestion. “If the child is not under arrest and has not been reported as a missing person, the officer can refer them to a support group or assist them in returning home through traveler’s aide or out of his or her own pocket,” Haggerty Sr. explains. “I have done both.” He goes on to explain, “Either way there are no guarantees that the child will change their lifestyle. Leaving ‘the life’ has to be voluntary and the child has to have the desire to want to change.”

4. Treat the Child like a Victim and not a Criminal

One of the most important aspects of working with child commercial sex exploitation is recognizing that the children are not criminals. They are victims. “The officer has to be able to demonstrate both empathy and understanding,” states Haggerty Sr. “He or she has to sincerely believe the child is a victim and be conscious of what the child has been subjected to. Knowing the language of the street and the common lifestyle helps.” Street children have been convinced by their pimps that they will be treated unfairly and that law officers and authority figures are bad and will not take care of them. It is important officers do not feed into this by his or her behaviors, words or actions. “The officer has to overcome the pimp talk that has been drilled into this child’s head,” explains Haggerty Sr. “He or she has to make the victim see that he or she is not the enemy and is trying to help. Honesty is imperative, the good and the bad.”

Law enforcement is a noble occupation. Officers take on the worst in humanity and exploiting a child for sex, ranks right up there at the top. With understanding, empathy and knowledge of resources officers can make a huge impact in the often disregarded world of child prostitution. “The juvenile prostitute is not seen by society as a worthy victim, while the sexually abused child is,” Haggerty Sr. concludes. “We must realize they are one and the same.”