Friday, January 28, 2011
Study: Dallas is hot spot for sexual exploitation of adolescent girls
More than 250 underage girls were sexually exploited in Dallas a month. And that only counts the ones they could prove.
Posted by Flickr user lupzdut
DALLAS “Jane,” a 15-year old runaway with a troubled home life, sits by herself in a Dallas train station. To even the casual observer she looks lonely, unhappy, maybe a little frightened. To a man who exploits children for a living, she looks like money.
He takes the seat next to her, starts up a conversation. He offers to buy her lunch and lends a sympathetic ear while she eats. He tells her she’s pretty.
By nightfall, she’s settled into his apartment, happy to be off the streets. By morning, she’s no longer a virgin. By week’s end, she’s turning tricks to pay his rent, trapped in a life that no woman -- let alone a teenager -- should have to endure.
Jane’s story is fictional, but all over Texas, real-life dramas just like it regularly play out in coffee shops and malls, at rail stations and bus stops, according to a recent study about the female adolescent sex trade in Texas. Young females need connections, they need relationships, and pimps lure them into prostitution by (at first) offering the affection and stability these girls seek. With more than 9,000 runaways in Dallas County each year, they have plenty of targets from which to choose. Cathy Brock, residential caseworker supervisor at Letot Center, a Dallas shelter for victims and at-risk youth, says, “In the past, all the effort was put into international trafficking, and around special events like the upcoming Super Bowl in Dallas. It took a long time to figure out it was in our backyard, too. It was here long before the Super Bowl and it’ll be here long after. It’s everyday and it’s local.”
Brock’s claims are backed up by data. The Dallas Women’s Foundation just released a study which shows that 740 underage girls were sexually exploited in Texas in a one-month timeframe (November 2010), and the study only reported those advertised online or through escort services. Brock feels the number would be much larger if it included girls whose services are being offered on the streets, however there are no reliable and repeatable methods for counting street-level sexual exploitation.
Even limiting the data to the girls documented by the Women’s Foundation, the statistics are sobering. The number of girls identified as being marketed for sex online and through escort services in the state almost reaches the combined annual total of these horrible deaths: Texas women killed in domestic violence incidents by current or former husbands, partners or boyfriends (111); the number of women who died of complications from AIDS (261); and the number of teenage girls who died as a result of suicide, homicide or accident (461). The sexual exploitation of children in Texas is so prevalent that the state ranks second only to New York in studies using similar methodology in three other states. North Texas is a particular hot spot for sexual exploitation and manipulation. The Dallas area represents about 26% of the total Texas population, yet accounts for 35% of the commercial sexual exploitation of underage girls.
The Dallas Police Department actively addresses the sexual exploitation of children through its Child Exploitation, High Risk Victims and Trafficking unit, led by DPD Sgt. Byron Fassett. Over the years, punitive detention for these young girls has proven ineffective. Prosecution and incarceration did nothing to address the root causes that made them vulnerable in the first place. Fassett’s unit created a profile for high-risk girls. The unit’s goal is to identify those most at risk as they enter the system, whether it’s for prostitution, running away, truancy, or other misdemeanor charges. They treat the girls as victims and work with the Letot Center to provide services to prevent or interrupt the cycle of exploitation.
Caseworker supervisor Brock says of her facility, “We provide them safety, protection, take care of medical issues, psychological issues. We try to figure out what they need now, then work backwards to figure out what got them on the street.”
With the assistance of a $1 million lead gift from the Dallas Women’s Foundation, the Letot Center will be able to help more girls than ever with the building of their new Letot Girls’ Residential Treatment Center in Dallas. Planned to accommodate 96 girls, the new facility will be the largest of only a handful like it in the United States. The hope of the Women’s Foundation is that the new center will prevent the sexual exploitation of many young girls in Dallas while helping those who have fallen prey to traffickers to rebuild their lives.
Dallas Women’s Foundation CEO and president Becky Sykes hopes the research and the financial gift will bring the issue to light. “For us,” Sykes said, “the goal would be to make this (trafficking) like domestic violence, like driving under the influence. Thirty years ago, we didn’t even have those phrases. The first step is to name it, to declare it the issue of our time. Then we can change the paradigm such that this is simply not acceptable in our culture anymore, because until the public feels that way, we’ll just be tinkering around the edges. At its heart, this is about a total devaluation of the lives of these girls. It is not OK to buy and sell young girls for sex.”
According to Letot Center’s Brock, the problem needs to be addressed early because, “We either pay now or we pay later. Eventually these girls become the homeless, the drug addicts, the ones committing more serious crimes. They suffer mental illnesses and they create generations of the same unless the child is lucky enough to have intervention.”
Success depends on both prevention and treatment. The Letot Girls’ Residential Treatment Center will provide both with hopes of helping every young girl who enters live the life she deserves.
Brock summed it up best: "People forget that under another set of circumstances, these are our class valedictorians, these are the kids at the art magnet schools, the painters, the dancers." She hopes the study will give these girls a positive start.
Pegasus News Content partner - The Assignment Desk, DFW
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