By VALERIE BONK
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Child prostitutes would be considered victims of abuse rather than juvenile offenders and be referred to child welfare officials under legislation in Congress aimed at extending care to them before they become ensnared in the criminal justice system.
"In much of the country today if a girl is found in the custody of a so-called pimp she is not considered to be a victim of abuse, and that's just wrong and defies common sense," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing Tuesday, where lawmakers heard a 25-year-old woman recount how the child welfare system failed her nearly a decade earlier.
Asia Graves, now a Maryland-based advocate for sexually exploited girls, told of being kicked out of her home by her father at the age of 16 and soon found herself with a man who took her in during a Boston snowstorm. After a week of living comfortably, things changed.
"He told me that he was a pimp, and I was his property," Graves said.
"I did not wake up one morning and say that I wanted to be a prostitute," she said. "There is no such thing as a `child prostitute' because legally, children cannot consent to be sold for sex. No girl chooses to be a slave. Yet, girls like me are the face of modern day slavery in America."
Michelle Guymon, a probation officer in Los Angeles, told the committee that pimps prey on girls like Graves who are left without a home and seek comfort and a place to stay.
"He may pose as a boyfriend or parental figure, offering to provide her with food, clothes, shelter, security, even love," said Guymon. "Later, after an emotional bond has been established, she is forced to engage in commercial sexual acts or face brutal physical violence."
Joette Katz, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, quoted a decade-old Justice Department report's estimates that nearly 450,000 children run away from home each year and that one-third of teens living on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.
"The tough background and unstable upbringing of many foster youth increases their risk of exploitation," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "Too often, sexually exploited children have nowhere to go for help. The people they turn to don't know how to handle these cases."
The legislation, co-sponsored by Wyden and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, would require state law enforcement, foster care and child welfare programs to identify children lured into sex trafficking as victims of abuse and neglect eligible for the appropriate protections and services.