'This Could Be Your Kid'

Like many teenage girls in Minneapolis, 17-year-old Stacey liked to hang out after school at the Mall of America, Minnesota's vast shopping megaplex. Cute, blond and chatty, she flirted with boys and tried on the latest Gap fashions. One day last summer, Stacey, which isn't her real name, says she was approached by a man who told her how pretty she was, and asked if he could buy her some clothes. "He was an older guy, dressed really well," she recalls. "He said he just wanted to see me in the clothes." Stacey agreed, and went home that night with a $250 outfit.

The encounter taught Stacey a lesson: "Potentially good sex is a small price to pay for the freedom to spend money on what I want." The easiest way, she discovered, was to offer her body in trade. Stacey, who lives with her parents in an upscale neighborhood, gets good grades in high school and plans to try out for the tennis team, began stripping for men in hotel rooms in exchange for money to buy clothes--then went on to more intimate activities. She placed ads on a local telephone personals service, offering "wealthy, generous" men "an evening of fun" for $400. All the while, she told her parents she was out with friends or at the mall, and was careful to be home before her midnight curfew.

Stacey's story is enough to make any parent sick with worry. Sadly, her experience is growing more common. Over the last year, local and federal law-enforcement officials say they have noted a marked increase in teen prostitution in cities across the country. Solid numbers are difficult to come by--a government-sponsored study puts the figure in the hundreds of thousands--but law-enforcement agencies and advocacy groups that work with teen prostitutes say they are increasingly alarmed by the trend lines: the kids are getting younger; according to the FBI, the average age of a new recruit is just 13; some are as young as 9. The girls--many fewer are boys, most experts believe--are subjected to more violence from pimps. And, while the vast majority of teen prostitutes today are runaways, illegal immigrants and children of poor urban areas, experts say a growing number now come from middle-class homes. "Compared to three years ago, we've seen a 70 percent increase in kids from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds, many of whom have not suffered mental, sexual or physical abuse," says Frank Barnaba of the Paul & Lisa Program, which works with the Justice Department and the FBI in tracking exploited kids. Adds Lisa Grahn, another Paul & Lisa counselor: "People say, 'We're not from the ghetto.' The shame the parents feel is incredible."

To be sure, many kids come from troubled homes. Some, like Stacey, sell themselves as a way to make quick, easy money. Other girls are recruited by teenage pimps who befriend them at shopping malls and parties, luring them at first with clothes and jewelry, then coercing them with violence. "Everyone thinks they are runaways with drug problems from the inner city," says Andy Schmidt, a Minneapolis detective who helped bust a major Twin Cities prostitution ring. "It's not true. This could be your kid."

In response, local, state and federal officials are starting to clamp down on the crime, which is still treated as a minor offense in many cities. The FBI, working with the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children, recently identified 13 cities--including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, Chicago, Miami, Minneapolis and Dallas--that have juvenile-prostitution problems. In Atlanta, prosecutors used racketeering laws to bust a teen-prostitution ring and win heavy sentences for the flamboyant pimps who ran it. In Detroit, a five-state prostitution operation was uncovered when one of the teenage victims pleaded for help at a shopping mall. And in the last two months, there have been teen-prostitution busts in Stockton, Calif.; Ypsilanti, Mich., and McColl, S.C.

Hoping to build on the success of local busts, the FBI recently launched the Innocence Lost National Initiative, a program to help states and cities go after pimps who prey on teenage girls. Congress has approved $4 million to combat the problem of juvenile prostitution and other forms of child sex exploitation. The Justice Department is trying to get a better fix on the scope of the problem. "Ten years ago you didn't see this happening," says Bob Flores, who heads the department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. "We've got kids in every major city and in suburbia all over the place being prostituted." Even the White House has gotten involved. At a conference on missing and exploited children last fall, President George W. Bush talked about the threat of "girls and boys [who] are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor."

Child advocates are especially concerned that pimps are increasingly targeting girls at the local mall, a place many parents consider a haven for their kids to gather after school and on weekends. "For a pimp, a mall is a safe place to sit and watch young girls," says Schmidt, the Minneapolis detective. "He can buy her stuff, treat her like a boyfriend, get her thinking about all the money she can make." At malls in many states, authorities say, pimps deliberately pick out girls who appear socially awkward or lonely, and set out to make them feel special.

Twenty-year-old Annikki Davis knows all too well how the pimps operate. As an impressionable 14-year-old who grew up in a middle-class home, the Minneapolis native was befriended by a young man at a party. He lavished her with attention and she thought he wanted to be her boyfriend. He told her she should leave her strict parents and come live with him. She did. That's when the trouble started. The man turned out to be part of the Evans family, a brutal Minneapolis operation that pressed more than 25 teenage girls into prostitution in 24 states and Canada before the police broke up the ring in 1999. Annikki was forced to move to Las Vegas, where she was made to work constantly. "I didn't know how to streetwalk," she says. "He kept me out for three days straight, and didn't let me sleep or eat. I wasn't making the money he wanted me to make." Officials in Las Vegas say they've seen a steep rise in the number of teen-prostitution cases. In 1994, 24 juveniles were arrested for prostitution. By 2002, that number had risen to 125. And 2003 could be another record-setting year. As of July, police had already booked 90 underage girls. Sometimes, getting arrested is the only ways girls are able to break free of their pimps. Davis herself found her way home only after she was arrested and gave police her real name.

On a recent evening, Candace, a 16-year-old hanging out at the Mall of America's bus terminal for the bus ride home, says she was approached by three different pimps while she shopped that day. She's never fallen for any of their tricks, but says they've become impossible to avoid. "They'll say something to get your attention, like 'Hey, you dropped something'," she says. "Then, once you stop, they'll say, 'What's your name, what are you here in the mall for, let me buy you something'." (The Mall of America, whose spokesman declined to comment, has an extensive security operation and rules requiring juveniles to have chaperones on weekend evenings. Law-enforcement officials, who praise the mall's efforts to combat the problem, nonetheless concede that pimps are active there. "The Mall of America is a huge recruiting center," says FBI Special Agent Eileen Jacob.)

Child advocates are just as worried about, and puzzled by, girls like Stacey, who aren't forced into prostitution but instead appear to sell themselves for thrills, or money, or both. Richard Estes, a University of Pennsylvania researcher, says so-called designer sex is becoming more common in cities across the country. In San Diego, he says, he found middle-class teenage girls traveling to Tijuana to make quick money by prostituting themselves to U.S. servicemen. "We also found identical patterns with kids in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Honolulu." Estes says his research shows the girls would often invite men to their homes after school, while their parents were still at work.

Some activists put the blame at least in part on a culture that glorifies pimping. The new song by superstar rapper 50 Cent--"P.I.M.P."--is about as subtle as the title suggests. Sample lyric: "Bitch choose with me, I'll have you stripping in the street/Put my other hoes down, you get your ass beat." Rapper Jay-Z's hit song "Big Pimpin' " goes like this: "I thug 'em, f--- 'em, love 'em, leave 'em/Cause I don't f----in' need 'em/Take em out the hood, keep 'em lookin' good/But I don't f---in' feed 'em."

No matter the cause, police and prosecutors are left to find new ways of dealing with an intractable problem. But cracking down on pimps who prey on teenagers can be frustrating and difficult. Not only because it's often hard to find them, but because in many cities, anti-prostitution laws don't carry harsh penalties. In Atlanta, where pimping was classified as a misdemeanor, girls as young as 10 were turning up in Fulton County Juvenile Court on prostitution charges. By 2000 the chief judge reported seeing child prostitutes practically every week. That's when Janis Gordon, an assistant U.S. attorney fed up with a ring of brazen, violent pimps who openly sneered at the police, decided to prosecute them under racketeering laws usually used to snare mobsters. The FBI rounded up 15 pimps, many of whom began turning on the others in exchange for lighter sentences. The result: two of the city's most notorious pimps got prison sentences of 30 and 40 years (both men are appealing). "I don't know if we can ever eradicate the problem, but we really made a significant dent," says Gordon, who is now a state court judge.

Back in Minnesota, police have stepped up stings designed to net teen prostitutes and their pimps. Earlier this summer, undercover detectives responded to a phone advertisement for an evening's entertainment. Arriving at the hotel at the agreed upon time, they found Stacey waiting with two other teenagers. When her mom came to pick her up at the police station a few hours later, Stacey protested that the whole thing was a big misunderstanding. She wasn't charged, and the police haven't contacted her since her arrest. Soon, Stacey says, she was back at the mall, shopping and looking for someone to meet.