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The 13-Year-Old Prostitute

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From left, child prostitutes in Ningxia, China; Tijuana, Mexico; and Poipet, Cambodia. If any of these girls were found working in the United States, they would be sheltered by the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act. But what about local underage trade? New York State still throws girls in juvenile jail. What makes a 13-year-old Latina from Brooklyn a criminal and a Chinese (or Mexican, or Cambodian) girl a victim?  

On January 26 of this year, Lucilia is brought handcuffed and shackled in a van from the Crossroads juvenile jail to Queens Family Court for a hearing to decide her fate. She sits at a table next to Melanie Shapiro, her Legal Aid lawyer since she first came to Family Court when she was still 13. Lucilia’s dark hair is pulled back in a neat, careful doughnut bun, and with her delicate features and round, high forehead, she looks more like a ballerina than a juvenile delinquent. Sergeant McConnell sits in a box at the right-hand side of Judge Fran Lubow. The city prosecutor, Lori Iskowitz, and the attorney from the state Office of Children and Family Services sit before the bench. It’s a rare situation: Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney have known Lucilia since she was 13 and are asking for the same thing. They want Lucilia to be placed at the supervised house run by GEMS. OCFS wants to punish Lucilia for going AWOL by sending her upstate to Tryon, the juvenile equivalent of maximum-security state prison. The hearing goes on for a week and a half.

On the third day, Lucilia takes the stand herself. She describes the situation she found herself in at Leake & Watts, saying that “the male staff, they were perverts, flirting with girls—I had a male staff tell me, ‘I can give it to you better than any young boy.’” She testifies that a boy there threatened her with a gun. She says that she kept calling her caseworker for help but never got a call back. “In one way, I knew I was wrong for AWOLing, but I probably would have been injured now, or in a hospital, or dead,” she says through tears.

“It’s hard,” says the judge, when the hearing resumes the following week, “to make up for twelve, thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen years of a child’s life.” She says that she believes Lucilia. “None of us,” says Lubow, “are used to youngsters who insist, and insist, and insist on being heard.” Judge Lubow releases her to GEMS. “I do hope that you understood everything I said about you,” she says to Lucilia, who is nodding, “and how much potential I think you have. As an adult, I’m very humbled to know you. At 16, I wasn’t as sharp as you.” Sergeant McConnell escorts Lucilia out through the detention door one last time, taking her upstairs, where Melanie Shapiro waits for her with Haley Volpintesta and Ebony Mack, the GEMS court liaisons. They clap when she appears, breathless and beaming. “I can’t wait to smell the fresh air,” Lucilia says. “I feel so good.”

“At first you think, Well, it’s their own fault,” says Assemblyman William Scarborough, a Democrat from Queens who is sponsoring the Safe Harbor Act in the New York State Legislature, which would begin to bring state law on juvenile prostitution in line with the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act. “It relieves you of the responsibility of having to do anything. So when I was introduced to the reality of these children’s lives, I was shocked. The law discriminates against them. It just offended my sense of fairness.” If Lucilia had been picked up three years ago not by the precinct cops but by the FBI, her life could have been entirely different. She would have been brought to a women’s crisis shelter. She would not have been prosecuted. She would have been given therapy and other services. If she were here from another country, she would have been given a temporary visa and refugee status. In this separate-but-unequal legal system, Lucilia’s only real crime was being born an American citizen.

“Everybody’s seeing this issue in a new light,” says John Feinblatt, the mayor’s criminal-justice coordinator. “Laws are going to change.” And the proposed state legislation does have some momentum. A few weeks ago, Rachel Lloyd, the GEMS director, drove to Albany with Lucilia and three more of the 200 girls GEMS worked with last year to testify at a State Assembly hearing on the Safe Harbor Act. The girls sit at a long table facing five assemblymen and two assemblywomen, along with their respective staffs. Each girl tells her story. There is silence for a moment when they are through. Then the politicians pledge support. Assemblyman Joe Errigo, an upstate Republican, tries to address the girls, but he is unable to speak and sits dabbing his eyes.

“It was extremely effective,” Scarborough says over the phone the next day. “By the time we got to our Assembly session yesterday, Errigo had gone to the head of the Republican Assembly Conference and begun to line up the Republicans behind this bill. We’re going to try to fast-track it—I am hopeful that by April 24, we can move this in both houses. If all of my colleagues could just see face-to-face the life that these young ladies live and what they’ve gone through, I don’t see how anybody could be in opposition.” It was a beautiful moment. But that may have been all it was. The reality is that when it comes to taking a vote on anything that could be seen as being soft on crime, most politicians still jam on the brakes.


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