If you haven't already read the story of the 15-year-old Trenton, New Jersey girl who allegedly prostituted herself and her 7-year-old stepsister, prepare to be outraged. But then I hope you will join me in raising your voice and taking action, because this tragic case, unfortunately, is one of many. As we begin National Child Abuse Prevention Month, the US Department of Justice estimates that 293,000 American children are at risk of being drawn into the commercial sex trade.
First, the facts as we know them so far. According to an April 1 Trenton Times interview with the 15-year-old's grandmother, the teenager has a long history of mental health issues and has been expelled from several schools. The grandmother said she raised the teenager from infancy, and that she normally visits her father, his wife and the wife's daughter on weekends. She said that they are accustomed to keeping a tight rein on the teen. Both girls were with their father last Sunday afternoon, doing laundry, when the teenager sneaked out of the house. The younger child followed her sister out of concern for her safety, according to police. Upon finding the girls missing, the father and wife searched the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, police say the older girl accepted an invitation from some men to a party in the nearby Rowan Towers apartment complex, walking distance from the State capital building. She had sex with several men and then told her sister to let the men touch her. The touching turned into a gang rape. She was threatened with murder if she cried out or told anyone. Eventually, the child got dressed and left the apartment alone, where she was found by two women who walked her home, where her parents were waiting with the police.
According to a press release(.pdf) from the Trenton police department, the charges against the teenager include aggravated sexual assault and promoting prosecution. The Mercer County Prosecutor's office reportedly wants to try her as an adult. A 20-year-old Trenton man, Gregory Joseph Leary has been charged with raping the 15-year-old. Police say they are conducting extensive interrogations to find out who was at the sex party and "strongly expect" more arrests. In a pre-dawn raid Thursday, police swept Rowan Towers and arrested 27 people on outstanding warrants that included relatively minor offenses such as unpaid parking tickets.
However, the pressure tactics aren't yielding results - neighbors are reportedly afraid of retaliation if they cooperate with police. You can see a video clip of Trenton mayor Doug Palmer and other officials pleading for witnesses to come forward. Under New Jersey law, failing to report the abuse of a child can lead to a disorderly persons charge and a $1000 fine. Despite the risk of penalties and a heavy police presence at Rowan Tower, neighbors say they don't feel safe from gangs and drug dealers.
I've been in that neighborhood. On the surface, it doesn't look like a war zone. There are stately Victorian homes nearby that have been turned into charter schools, community service agencies and private homes. Ride the city buses that stop there and you will see senior citizens, parents, working adults, children. And at the right time of day you will occasionally see young men who seem to have no particular place to go. It is, in other words, an ordinary neighborhood, and it is under siege. And by the way, because of proposed cuts in state aid, the city announced this week that it might have to fire as many as 120 police officers.
Child prostitution is national problem. According to the US Department of Justice, most are runaways or "throwaway" children who have been abused, abandoned, abducted, or tricked by traffickers or their own family. Federal law enforcement initiatives, such as the "Innocence Lost" project are targeted to interstate trafficking.
What can we do?
These are my ideas. I'd love to read yours.
1. Learn the facts, The Child Welfare information Gateway has information and links resources on a range of issues involving child prostitution specifically and child abuse generally, including searchable databases on state laws, support services, and resources for therapists, community agencies and law enforcement.
2. Does your community have adequate resources for protecting children? State and municipal services are being hard hit by the economic crisis. What's happening where you are. Find out, blog about it, and put the link in the comments.
3.1-888-373-7888 That's the number for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, a non-profit hotline for reporting on sex slavery cases in the US. Although they are funded by a grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services, they are not a law enforcement agency and they are not connected with immigration authorities.
We found ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder with predators in a small room, looking at little girls through a pane of glass. All of the girls wore red dresses with a number pinned to their dress for identification. They sat, blankly watching cartoons on TV. They were vacant, shells of what a child should be. There was no light in their eyes, no life left. Their light had been taken from them. These children...raped each night... seven, ten, fifteen times every night. They were so young. Thirteen, eleven… it was hard to tell. Sorrow covered their faces with nothingness. Except one girl. One girl who wouldn’t watch the cartoons. Her number was 146. She was looking beyond the glass. She was staring out at us, with a piercing gaze. There was still fight left in her eyes. There was still life left in this girl.."
5. The Somaly Mam Foundation. Cambodian-born Somaly Mam was forced into sex slavery as a child, but found the strength to escape and become an advocate for other exploited children. Here she is, along with actor Susan Sarandon, discussing their work on the Tyra Banks show.
The Somaly Mam foundation and Love 146 are proving that with the right support, children can be saved and restored, even when they have endured the kind of horror that took place last Sunday in Trenton. But they can only be saved if enough of us act. Will you join me?
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