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What It's Like to Be 17 and Having Sex for Money

The number of girls forced to sell their bodies in the streets and in casinos and hotels keeps rising, even as their age keeps dropping.

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“We lost her,” Fassett says.

By seventeen, she was being prostituted across the country. She managed to survive a shooting by a pimp once, but two years later she turned up dead, her body wasted by drugs.

“If I knew then what I know now, I could have saved her. I failed miserably,” says Fassett.

That failure gnawed at him. One of Roberta’s last police mug shots shows her with pallid skin and sunken eyes, staring listlessly at the camera. “Her eyes haunted me forever,” the Dallas cop says. “The life in her eyes was gone.”

Shaken by that experience and by other failures to help the teenagers he was spotting on the streets, Fassett tried to get his department to set up something he called the Juvenile Prostitution Diversion Project, pushing it as the right thing to do. But with limited police budgets, the prospect of a new program that would draw money away from other jealous departments was never going to fly. “I got my butt kicked,” Fassett admits. “I walked away. No one else gives a crap about these kids. Why should I?”

Except he couldn’t walk away. On the street Fassett kept coming upon more girls the system was failing. “It ate me up,” he says. “The more we looked, the more we saw.”

It would take another decade before Fassett finally succeeded in getting the Dallas police department to set up a pioneering program for prostituted children, one that became a model for police forces across the country. But to do that he had to challenge the very fundamentals of his own law enforcement establishment. The girls he was trying to help didn’t see themselves as victims, nor did the cops busting them see them that way. They would be arrested as runaways, petty criminals, drug users, and, often, thanks to fake IDs, adult prostitutes.

Fassett was outraged by what he saw as an egregious double standard. A man who had sex with a minor would be jailed for statutory rape, and she would be treated as the victim she was. But if he left a pile of cash by the bed, she could be locked up as a prostitute, and he might get away with a small fine as a john.

“The justice system knows how to deal with offenders. We know how to deal with victims,” Fassett says. “But these kids are both, and they are falling through the cracks.”

* * *

A frightened teenager in Vegas, a former brothel madam turned savior in Phoenix, a cop on a mission in Dallas. Three fronts in a battle being waged in the streets of America to save children that most people prefer to ignore.

No one knows precisely how many Marias are out there, forced into prostitution every year in America. These children don’t count -- and no one is counting them. In a report on what it aptly calls “domestic sex trafficking,” the Department of Justice (DOJ) issues this blunt warning: “Among children and teens living on the streets in the United States, involvement in commercial sex activity is a problem of epidemic proportion.” Yet it is an epidemic that has gone largely overlooked and untreated.

The most common estimate cited by the DOJ and child protection agencies puts the number of children who are commercially sexually exploited at around three hundred thousand. That figure comes from the only serious study of the problem that has been done -- a University of Pennsylvania paper coauthored by Richard J. Estes in 2001 entitled “Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.” For the U.S. portion of the three-year study, researchers chose seventeen cities and then extrapolated their findings for the entire country. They interviewed about a thousand children as well as police and child-care workers, and they gathered statistics from various law enforcement and government agencies.

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