Teen Sex For Sale

Posted: October 23, 1997

SHE STANDS alone near the corner, holding an umbrella in the driving rain.

Her frail body and the needle tracks on her arms are hidden beneath an oversized Eagles sweatsuit.

For three nights each week, a girl who calls herself Maria stands along Kensington Avenue, working to make enough money to stay high on heroin for the rest of the week.

She is 16.

She's also one of the senior kids on Kensington's streets, making $10 to $20 a customer and having sex with half-a-dozen men a night.

``I gotta have my heroin. That's the only reason I do this,'' she says, her eyes unable to focus. ``Sure I'm scared when I get in a car, but I just keep thinking of the money I'm going to make.''

Her story is not unique.

An increasing number of children are peddling their flesh on the streets of Kensington - children who hit the street before they hit puberty. They trade a life as stay-at-home schoolchildren for the dead-end existence of 13-, 14-, 15- and 16-year-old hookers.

Some are boys, most are girls. Almost all are heavily addicted to heroin, crack or cocaine.

In post-industrial Kensington, child prostitution is thriving, thanks to stricter laws in neighboring states, chatter on the Internet and the city's laissez-faire attitude toward prostitution.

The city vice squad claims Philadelphia has no child prostitution problem. Officers say they have arrested nearly 1,000 prostitutes this year, but have seen few under 18.

But the same cops also admit they release young-looking prostitutes back onto the street without knowing their ages or names since the city neither fingerprints nor photographs most hookers arrested for the misdemeanor called ``obstructing the highway.''

Philadelphia authorities are plotting a crackdown on seasoned Kensington Avenue hookers. But officials acknowledge that their efforts will do little to save the child prostitutes, who can be arrested and released within hours.

``It angers me that Philadelphia has gained a reputation . . . for prostitution,'' said at-large City Councilman Jim Kenney. ``The youth are there on the street - from Washington and Maryland. It's a real problem.''

Neither youth advocacy centers, the U.S. Justice Department nor the police have any idea how many child streetwalkers there are.

Prostitution arrests across the nation last year, according to the FBI, included 263 kids aged 16 and 153 aged 15. Approximately 140 children younger than 15 were arrested.

Arrest numbers, however, don't accurately reflect the number of children on the streets or the seriousness of child prostitution, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Center.

``I've had girls tell me they are 14 and they are from Oklahoma. They say they hear this is a good place to come. They know they are not going to jail,'' said City Councilman Rick Mariano, who has been combating prostitution in Kensington.

``We cannot tolerate this type of crime. This is sexual abuse of these youth.''

IF CHILDREN who are arrested have no police record, they can swear to cops they're over 18 - and there's little or nothing police can do to refute them.

The youngsters, who often look haggard and older due to drug use, aren't fingerprinted, photographed or detained.

``We don't get many that identify themselves as juveniles,'' said Vice Lt. John Cerrone. ``If they are adults, we can't hold them here or escort them home. I'm sure that makes some of them want to lie at times.''

To authorities who've worked with troubled youth, that's simply an excuse.

``If police admit they have a child prostitution problem, they are also admitting they are not doing anything about it,'' said vice detective Joe Canibano, of Dallas, who has been fighting child prostitution for 28 years. ``A lot of people bury their heads and assume these kids will be 18 soon,'' he said.

Even though the police say they don't see child prostitutes, some City Council members and town watch officials spend their days trying to discourage young girls from being abused along Kensington Avenue and its side streets.

The girls, who often stumble into neighborhood counseling centers and are as young as 12 and 13, all have stories.

Some ran away from home before high school. Others were sold into prostitution by drug-addicted parents. Almost all are either mentally ill or drug-addicted, experts say.

Dorothy, now recovering in a Kensington Avenue detox program, said she sold her body for the first time in Atlantic City at age 14.

The pubescent girl said she would service eight or nine customers a day, then rent cheap motel rooms with her earnings to do drugs and sleep for the night.

Now, 22, Dorothy is trying to get clean after walking Philadelphia's streets for six years.

She has two children, but doesn't know who their fathers are. She fears she has AIDS.

When she does hit the streets, she says she tries to discourage the 12- and 13-year-olds she meets from walking Kensington Avenue.

``I never thought about what I was doing, because I was numb. Numb on weed, coke. I was drinking a lot.

``It felt good when I was high,'' she says. ``That was my thing - attention. I had no father and my mother never paid attention to me.''

``Now I'm just trying to let these girls know it's not fun. It's getting worse on the streets. The drugs are getting stronger, the abuse - mental and physical - is getting worse.''

DESPITE RALLIES and police crackdowns, flesh-peddling children from Philadelphia and elsewhere continue to wind up on Kensington's streets.

On a recent Friday night, just days after a neighborhood anti-prostitution rally, girls 14 and 15 from Maryland, Puerto Rico and the Main Line were strutting Kensington Avenue in halter tops, tight jeans and heels.

Some wouldn't talk to a reporter. Others were shielded by pimps.

``It's two or three men'' running things, said one young hooker. ``Kids are coming from out of state. Some are runaways.''

Some of the influx, say vice cops, can be traced to laws passed last year in Washington, D.C., and Maryland that mandate jail time for hookers.

Kensington's popularity also gets a boost from the Internet, according to Tracy Parrish, the director of Phase III outpatient community services, who says she has counseled several of the child prostitutes.

On the Internet, a Web site listing the nation's sex hot-spots touts Philadelphia with ``several good locations to check'' for hookers, including Kensington and Allegheny Avenues, and Kensington and Frankford Avenues.

The listing reports: ``Most of the encounters occur inside vehicles, although some girls have apartments and they will be willing to take you there for a fee ($10).''

``These girls come from all over,'' said Parrish. ``They are little girls with high expectations - they think they'll start by doing drugs and eventually end up meeting someone or getting a job.''

IN ADDITION to Washington's crackdown with mandatory jail sentences of up to 90 days and fines of at least $300, the nation's capital targets prostitution patrons. Johns who are nabbed in the act are forced to hand over their cars. Their names, photos and addresses are made public after their arrests.

Though Philadelphia has a similar seizure law, it has never been enforced. In the next few weeks, some City Council members say they will demand to know why the laws, enacted in 1992, have not been enforced.

``It's a lack of political will'' in the Police Department and the Rendell administration, Councilman Kenney said.

Deputy Mayor Kevin Feeley says it's not lack of will. It's that the city doesn't want to violate the johns' civil rights.

``There are due process issues,'' Feeley said. ``It's hard to say that to someone fighting prostitution in Kensington.''

In Kensington, neighborhood activists have been watching a house that police sources say is owned by a drug-addicted, middle-aged woman. The woman has reportedly converted the tumbledown rowhouse into a party pad for drug dealers and preteen prostitutes - both male and female.

One of the young prostitutes is the woman's own daughter, according to neighbors.

``She's got young lowlifes coming in there to get a fix,'' said neighbor Harry Barber. ``It's unforgivable what she has done to this neighborhood. She says she'd rather give these kids a place to stay than have them out on the street.''

But cops, who say that hookers from the avenue take shelter in the house, claim their hands are tied.

Because much of the suspected activity takes place out of public view, officials say there is little or nothing they can do about such houses of ill repute.

``Without proving the prostitution is happening in the house, saying it happens on the corner isn't good enough'' to shut the house down or investigate child prostitution, said a city prosecutor.

Top Cat Town Watch president Jay Wiley, who has been monitoring child prostitution in Kensington for nearly a year, says the party pad seems to deal the most drugs and put the youngest children on the street.

On a recent Wednesday night, there was nonstop traffic in and out of the rowhouse.

A dozen men enter. Three girls exit. Occasionally, 20-something punks sporting bandannas on their heads and baseball bats in their hands accompany the preteen girls to the corner.

But the girls - their hair teased, skimpy shirts in place - wait alone for their customers, feverishly smoking and nervously watching over their shoulders for the police.

Some quietly eye cars as they drive up the street. Others stroll back and forth along the street, stumbling, smoking and making small talk with neighbors.

``There are so many of these little girls, you lose count,'' said neighbor Sue Wiley.

``Maria'' is one. A friend suggested she try prostitution to make some extra money for heroin, she says.

Other girls approach men on the street, asking, ``Do you need a date?''

Within minutes, cars with New Jersey and Pennsylvania license plates pull up to the curb. Other drivers, trying to look inconspicuous, pull around the corner and wait for the adolescents to walk over.

Other nights, preteen and teen-age girls are whisked away in pickup trucks, minivans, Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals. They're back in an hour or less, back on the street again.

The customers: a senior citizen from Cherry Hill, a Philadelphia roofing contractor. Men who stop after a day of work. Men who look for sex after bars close.

Youth counselors say children typically turn to prostitution after they run away and fall prey to a pimp or drug dealer, who supplies them with enough drugs to get them hooked. The children have to work for their next hit.

Criminologist Dale Yeager, who has interviewed dozens of Philadelphia-area child prostitutes, both male and female, says the children rarely believe they are being exploited. They believe they are independent young adults earning their own food and shelter.

``Children in general in the last 10 years have become very disposable,'' said Dale Yeager, a criminal profiler at a private consulting firm in Berwyn.

``A 14-year-old boy tells me he's making money by serving suburban adult men, yet he says he's not a homosexual,'' Yeager said. ``He says he's simply making his money.''

At age 14, ``Cornflake'' was crack-addicted, and left his suburban Philadelphia home in search of money and independence.

He soon discovered that jobless and penniless, he couldn't eat or support his habit.

He says he decided to take to the streets of Kensington, a 14-year-old heterosexual boy who found fast dollars from servicing Center City businessmen.

He now claims he's ready to enter recovery. He also claims he's off the streets.

But most days, Cornflake is huddled on church steps at Kensington Avenue and Monmouth Streets, waiting for his next male customer.

``I have regulars . . . older men,'' he says. ``Sometimes I do it one day a week. I do it for crack.''

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