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Originally published March 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 9, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Guest columnists

Childhood prostitution: stolen youth, stolen dreams

It's time to stop blaming the victim. Currently, children younger than 18 are guilty of solicitation if successfully prosecuted for engaging...

Special to The Times

It's time to stop blaming the victim.

Currently, children younger than 18 are guilty of solicitation if successfully prosecuted for engaging in prostitution.

But let's call it what it really is — commercial sexual abuse of a minor — to put the onus on the perpetrator instead of the victim.

By conservative estimates, between 200,000 and 300,000 children are exploited through prostitution each year in this country. And the industry is exploding: An estimated 10 million children around the globe are involved in prostitution, with 1 million more each year joining the ranks of trafficking victims.

The health implications are staggering for minors engaging in prostitution: increased risks of physical and sexual assault; sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS; pregnancy; cervical cancer; abortion; suicide; and death.

Childhood prostitution takes other tolls, too, including homelessness and dropping out of school. A sobering 75 percent or more of the girls ages 13 to 18 in our criminal-justice system have been physically abused. Many have been prostituted, used to produce pornography, or suffered or witnessed physical and sexual violence. These children pay steep prices for being paid to engage in sex.

Physical health detriments aside, these youths suffer significant mental-health issues. The majority have been sexually abused — some as young as toddlers, and from multiple adults — and can't form trusting relationships. This devastation becomes more apparent when many teens, offered counseling and social services to leave behind life on the streets, cannot grasp the concepts of choice and independence.

On the state level, it has been hard to quantify the numbers of youth who are trafficked or engaging in commercial sex, which is a well-hidden economy. We can confirm that since 2002, there have been 84 convictions of juveniles for prostitution — but only two for adults convicted of patronizing them. We suspect that hundreds of juveniles are working as prostitutes. A U.S. Justice Department report placed Seattle among 12 hub cities where traffickers recruit teen sex workers.

It's disturbing not to have the numbers, but we have stories. Vice unit officers report seeing teenage prostitutes soliciting on Aurora Avenue North and are aware that many pimps have these girls working a West Coast circuit.

To stem this tide, we support a two-pronged approach: Encourage children and teens to seek prevention and intervention services, and hold accountable those who victimize them.

Senate Bill 5718 would direct funds deposited into the prostitution intervention and prevention account, now managed by the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, to help these victimized children and teens reclaim their lives. These funds would be targeted for residential treatment; counseling services, including mental-health and substance-abuse services; and health care. Money would be used, too, to connect children to school or vocational training.

In all practicality, a person who pays for sex with someone younger than 18 should be guilty of commercial sexual abuse of a minor, not of patronizing a juvenile prostitute. Refocusing the law on the adult who commits the crime sends the message that these youths' lives have value and meaning. If we are serious about reducing commercial sexual abuse of minors, we must make it less attractive to johns and pimps.

The number of establishments and settings that permit commercial sexual abuse of minors would drop by requiring property owners to abate the abuse and take affirmative steps to notify law enforcement that abuse is occurring. We would make it a Class C felony to promote travel for the purpose of commercial sexual abuse of a minor.

Here's the kicker: An additional one-year penalty would be tacked on to the sentence of someone convicted of the most serious crimes of sexual abuse against children, such as rape of a child, if the offender paid to engage in the abuse.

Good public policy reflects our values as a society. With so little of our lives spent in childhood, we owe it to our youth to keep them safe. For many, this means keeping them off the streets. But for those already there, we are going to make it easier to get help and harder to be victimized.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle represents the 36th Legislative District. Nick Licata is president of the Seattle City Council.

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