Proposed program for teen prostitutes aground
Hundreds of juvenile prostitutes — most of them girls — are sold for sex every day in King County. A pilot program was supposed to give sexually exploited youth a safe haven from violent pimps and the traumas of street life, but budget cuts threaten to kill the program before it's even launched.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The money — roughly $1.25 million over two years — was a drop in the bucket but at least it was something, a start to providing a haven for the hundreds of teen prostitutes across King County seeking refuge from violent pimps and the traumas of street life.
The city of Seattle was all ready to throw the switch on the state's first program dedicated to treating the unique mental-health and chemical-dependency problems of a growing population of young people — mostly girls — who are often likened to domestic-violence victims or battle-scarred war veterans.
In a partnership with the county and the United Way of King County, the city program would have created an emergency shelter, transitional housing and targeted social services for girls 11 to 18 who are forced to sell their bodies in seedy motels and along infamous stretches of highway.
But the county's financial crisis has practically killed the proposal. Now, proponents of the program, including Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess, say their last hope is to convince the Metropolitan King County Council to reinstate the funds when County Executive Kurt Triplett sends them his 2010 budget at the end of the month.
Though police, juvenile-court officials and youth social workers are acutely aware of the problems facing teen prostitutes, the local community has long ignored a dark subculture that's increasingly dominated by gang members who can make more money pimping than selling drugs, according to Burgess.
People "don't like to talk about it, don't want to acknowledge it. It's ugly," he said. "There's a whole side to our city and region we barely know is there and it's causing huge damage to young lives."
According to conservative estimates, there are between 300 and 500 juvenile prostitutes in King County at any given time, mostly in Seattle and cities to the south, such as SeaTac, Auburn and Kent.
As many as 80 to 90 percent of them are under the control of gang members who regularly beat, rape, threaten and coerce girls into having sex with men, many imposing daily quotas of $300 to $800 for each girl, according to local social-service providers who gathered for a one-day conference last week on child sex trafficking.
"Violence against women is an integral part of gang culture ... and prostitution is very much a part of gang culture," said Debra Boyer, a cultural anthropologist and independent researcher who last year wrote a report on juvenile prostitution commissioned by the city.
"It's always a struggle" to garner political will and public money to help juvenile prostitutes escape the streets because "they're objectified and stigmatized as throwaway people, even if they are only 13," Boyer said.
Typically, when a girl is arrested for prostitution, she can only be held three to five days, either in juvenile detention or at a youth-crisis response center, Boyer said. Juveniles are supposed to be released to a responsible adult, but oftentimes it's the girl's pimp or one of his family members who picks her up and puts her right back on the streets.
Two years in the making, the city's pilot program — Safe Housing and Treatment for Children in Prostitution — was supposed to provide a place to protect girls from their pimps, help them heal from post-traumatic stress, substance abuse and other mental illnesses, and hopefully, regain something of their childhoods.
Then the economy tanked.
"The timing is terrible," said Terri Kimball, who directs the division of domestic violence and sexual-assault prevention in the city's Human Services Department. "We were so close to doing something right for these kids and those hopes are dashed."
The bulk of the money for the pilot program — $480,000 each year for two years — was to come from the county's Mental Illness and Drug Dependency (MIDD) fund.
The United Way had pledged $100,000 a year to go to an emergency shelter, while the city — using victim-restitution money paid by convicted johns — was to give $46,000 a year to help meet the special needs of sexually exploited youths.
Back in 2006, the state Legislature created a mechanism whereby counties could increase the sales tax by one-tenth of one percent to pay for new programs to treat mental illnesses and drug addictions.
Though MIDD money was only to be used to start new programs, the current financial crisis prompted lawmakers to tweak the rules during the last legislative session, allowing counties to use up to 50 percent of their MIDD money this year to backfill budget holes that threatened existing programs, said County Council member Bob Ferguson.
Late last month, Triplett announced that his 2010 budget would see 30 percent of the MIDD money — approximately $13 million — used to save existing mental-illness and drug-dependency programs, leaving $32 million for new programs.
In a thoughtful, five-page letter distributed to various stakeholders across the county, Triplett explained that he'd asked the MIDD Oversight Committee to prioritize a list of MIDD programs for his consideration.
The Safe Housing and Treatment for Children in Prostitution was at the very bottom of that list.
Based on the prioritized list, Triplett wrote: "As you will see, most of the 37 strategies have received cuts and for those programs not yet implemented, most have been delayed."
Triplett is on vacation until next week and cannot be reached by phone, said his spokeswoman, Carolyn Duncan.
The money to launch the program "is a drop in the bucket relative to the problem we're facing," Ferguson said. "We finally feel like we're getting a toehold, then the economy tanks and we have to make some unpleasant choices."
But Burgess and Boyer question why the program wasn't given higher priority since there aren't any services specifically for prostituted youth, the number of youth involved in prostitution is growing and the girls being offered — on the street, online and in the back pages of weekly newspapers — are getting younger and younger.
Burgess plans to lobby the County Council in the coming weeks in hopes that at least five of the nine members will vote to save it.
Though Boyer commended Triplett for trying "to make the best decision and do the right thing in a situation where there is no right thing," she believes the economic downturn provided a ready excuse to delay a program that many in the county government weren't really committed to creating.
"As a culture, as a city, as a county, we need to look at ourselves because we have no services for this group of young women," she said. "I would like the county to take another look at this [pilot program] ... because this is a start and it's a sad thing to lose that start."
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or email@example.com
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