Saving the next Kelsey Collins
A Seattle girl who vanished without a trace after testifying against her pimp underscores the need for police, courts and prosecutors to do a better job protecting teen prostitutes.
Contribute to the City of Seattle Prostitute Children Rescue Fund: www.seattle.gov/humanservices/domesticviolence/prostitutedyouth/rescuefund.htm
IF police, courts and prosecutors had been as eager to protect a teen prostitute as they were to prosecute her pimp, Kelsey Collins might be around today.
The Seattle girl remains missing after vanishing without a trace in May 2009, weeks after testifying before a federal grand jury.
Seattle Times reporter Susan Kelleher chronicled Collins' turn to the streets at age 16 and the events that led to her disappearance. Visible throughout the story was a criminal-justice system's struggle to amend its view of juvenile prostitutes as wayward runaways or criminals to be sent home or to jail.
In Washington, children younger than 18 who offer sex for money are usually arrested and sent to juvenile detention. Locking them up was, until recently, the only way to get them off the street and into a safe place. Scant attention was paid to the youths' development and treatment needs.
Since Collins' disappearance, a dramatic shift in public policy deserves attention and praise.
An annual sweep by the FBI and local law enforcement last fall rescued 16 children in Seattle. It is a smattering of the estimated 300-500 juvenile prostitutes — mostly girls — in King County, but the effort brought fresh attention and services to the issue.
A residential facility launched last spring in Seattle offers a place for young victims. Already full, two of its residents are 12-year-old girls. Credit Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess for keeping attention and funding on the effort to provide emergency shelter and key social services to teen prostitutes.
One change that reflects a shift in law-enforcement mindsets away from the "pick 'em up and book 'em" mentality of vice squads, the Seattle Police Department renamed its vice unit the "Vice and High Risk Victims Unit." Monthly meetings attended by local law enforcement, prosecutors, public-health workers and advocates for teen prostitutes coordinate efforts.
Supporters tie these worthwhile investments to three goals:
• Take the issue out of the shadows and into the public policy domain;
• See teen prostitutes as children in need of help, and not as criminals;
• View assistance to them as a priority within Seattle/King County services.
Children do not wake up thinking this is the day they will become a teen prostitute. They are coerced, beaten and tricked into the sex trade. Some are running from abuse at home. Others fall prey to pimps met on the Internet. Regardless of the road in, the path out should be a public priority.
Greater efforts should turn to helping the families of these kids. While the vast majority of teen prostitutes are wards of the state, some parents need help accessing the right services to help their child. Kelsey Collin's mother was unaware there were services for teen prostitutes until her daughter turned 18, too old to access them.
A team approach by law enforcement, prosecutors and child-welfare workers goes a long way to saving the next Kelsey Collins.
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