This guest op/ed is by council member Tim Burgess, who chairs the council's Public Safety and Education Committee. The Bridge program is partially funded by the City’s Prostituted Children Rescue Fund.
Last week, I visited The Bridge, the safe-haven residential recovery program that opened in June last year in Seattle for children who have been rescued from the violence and humiliation of street and Internet prostitution.
The house where Bridge counselors care for the youngsters—so far, all girls, ranging from 14 to 17—looks like many Seattle homes. There is an unfenced front yard with too many dandelions, and a tiny backyard. The cracked sidewalk is tree-lined and the neighborhood is quiet. The house is rambling, with bedrooms upstairs and featuring a spacious kitchen.
What’s different? The security cameras that are everywhere—inside and out. The tight security is designed to protect the residents from their predatory pimps and ensure their safety.[pullquote]As one staff member told me, “Punishment doesn’t work because these girls have been punished all their lives.”[/pullquote]
Entering The Bridge is a challenge for these kids; while they want to escape “the life,” the influence and control of their pimps can be overwhelmingly powerful and they often see no way out.
The Bridge offers a loving atmosphere where intensive counseling, therapeutic activities, medical care and education are the central focus. House rules exist, but compliance is voluntary. As one staff member told me, “Punishment doesn’t work because these girls have been punished all their lives.”
There’s been some controversy lately about whether the problem of prostituted children is real. Village Voice Media and its local newspaper, the Seattle Weekly, claim the problem has been overblown by attention-seeking celebrities. Others see it as part of an international crisis that features the labor and sex trafficking of vulnerable people—men, women and children.
My office has stayed away from the national numbers debate, recognizing that these oft-quoted figures haven’t been verified. But we do know the facts about our region and they cannot be debunked. Moreover, the number of arrests, or even arrests and recoveries (the police term for rescued children) is an inadequate indicator of the extent of child prostitution in our region.
In 2008, Dr. Debra Boyer, a highly respected Seattle cultural anthropologist, reviewed case files, referral documents, and police reports and identified by name 238 individual children—all 17 or younger—who were involved in prostitution. Using standard research extrapolation methods, Dr. Boyer then estimated from that established baseline of 238 that between 300 and 500 children were being prostituted at any given time on our streets and through online advertising.
YouthCare, the nonprofit organization that runs The Bridge, will soon release its own account of the number of prostituted children it has been in contact with during just the past year. We’ve been told that number is well over 100.
Whether it’s 238, or 100, 300, or 500, the numbers in our region are real, they are large and they are alarming.
The scale of the problem is big enough that the City Council and the Seattle Police Department are intensely focused on this issue. The council has revised city ordinances to increase penalties for so-called “johns” and empowered police officers to impound vehicles used in any way related to prostitution. A prostitution conviction in Seattle can now result in thousands of dollars in fines, including a $1,000 release fee just to get a vehicle released from an impound lot, plus towing and storage costs.
The council also provided start-up funding for The Bridge. The bulk of the three-year pilot funding came from private donations from individuals and local foundations.
The police department has also undergone a significant shift in its philosophy of policing related to prostitution. The police now view children who are prostituted as victims, not criminals. Rather than arresting them, they seek to get such kids the extensive services they need. Our police are now focused on arresting pimps and johns, the predators who use our children in the most heinous ways for financial gain or sexual satisfaction.
The children Debra Boyer identified in court and referral records, the children police officers and detectives pick up on the street, the children The Bridge serves are victims of psychological and sexual abuse. That’s a fact.
In most instances, these children experienced neglect or abuse since very early in their lives. They are susceptible to “grooming” and once turned by a pimp, they are isolated from other influences and totally dependent on him. In that dependent state, they are regularly degraded, intimidated, threatened or beaten. They are forced to turn multiple “tricks” a day, which is what makes them so valuable—they can be sold over and over again.
These young girls have been harmed beyond belief. And that’s why the services available at residential programs like The Bridge are so important. The Bridge offers a safe place where traumatized girls can begin to reclaim their lives and start a long and difficult journey back to normalcy.
If Village Voice Media wants to argue about the scope of the problem, fine. But in Seattle we’re focused on the reality that hundreds of children in our region are suffering at the hands of cruel and morally bankrupt men who use and abuse them. These are children at risk in our community and rescuing them is our priority. That’s a fact.
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