The low-slung black car rolled to a stop on Rockaway Boulevard. Another car was already parked there, waiting in the dark. Behind the tinted windows of the first car, Lucilia, a beautiful half–Puerto Rican, half-Dominican girl from Flatbush with long dark hair, pale skin, and wide eyes, sat with the other girls and listened carefully to her instructions. “All you got to do is go up to the car in front of us,” said Romeo, the young black man with heavy-lidded eyes at the wheel. “You charge him whatever you want to charge him, you ask if he’s police or a pimp. He’s gonna give you money, and then you’re gonna just do whatever he wants you to do real quick. It’s just a one-minute thing.” He sent her out.
She went up to the other car. The man inside drove her to one of the big parking lots nearby, close to the Belt Parkway. He paid her $500, had sex with her, and then dropped her off. “Where the money?” Romeo asked her when she climbed back inside his car. “Let me count it.” Lucilia took the cash out of her pocket and watched him flip through the bills. “Can I have my money back?” she asked. “You not getting your money back!” he said. “You making this money for me to take care of you.” And then he explained what he called “the Game,” how he would love her and be her “daddy,” how he would take care of her and buy her whatever she wanted, as long as she brought him money. “Let me tell you,” he said. “I’m a pimp, and you’re a ho.” “What do you mean I’m a ho?” she asked. She knew the word only as an insult, as in, you’re nasty. “No,” he said. “You’re a moneymaking ho.” “Is that good?” she asked. “Yeah,” he told her. “That’s good.” She was 13 years old.
If Lucilia were a 13-year-old Chinese girl smuggled to New York and made to work in a Queens brothel, she would not be seen, in the eyes of the authorities, as a prostitute at all. She would be a sex slave, a victim of human trafficking, and if she had the good fortune to be discovered by the police, she would be given federal protection and shielded by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. But she’s not.
In this city, a U.S. citizen like Lucilia is seen by the law as a prostitute. The federal law technically applies, but local law- enforcement follows state law. And according to state law, she is a victim, yes—of statutory rape, since the legal age of consent in New York is 17. But since the rapist paid money for the privilege, she’s also a criminal, subject to arrest, prosecution, and incarceration, no matter how young she is. And the prostitutes are getting younger. The consensus among the police officers, juvenile-rights lawyers, and prosecutors on the front lines is that more and more are entering the life as young as 12 years old. So how do we as a society deal with a girl like Lucilia? The contradiction between the state and federal legislation has created a crisis in policy and law enforcement. Is she a “moneymaking ho,” as her pimp called her, who should be prosecuted as a criminal—or is she just like the girls brought here from China, Colombia, or Belarus, a trafficking victim who should be equally protected under the law?
It would be difficult to pick the one moment that sent Lucilia down her dark and Dickensian path. Her autobiography is, of course, the testimony of an adolescent and thus might be viewed skeptically. But all of the facts as collected and reviewed over the years by child-services caseworkers, police officers, city prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges have thus far supported her grim account. “I was a very emotional, sad child when I was growing up,” Lucilia says. She spent her first five years in foster homes after she was hurt in a knife fight between her parents. She went to live with her grandmother at the age of 5 and was molested by an uncle at age 10. When her grandmother heard about it, she told Lucilia she was a liar and a whore. After a whipping with a TV wire that left her face sliced so bad it was noticed at school, she went back to live with her mother. “I always wanted to know how a mother’s love feels,” says Lucilia. “I would hear all these kids in school, ‘Oh, my mommy bought me this, I love Mommy.’” She was 12 the first time she saw her mother’s face again.