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.
Her mother bought her tight clothes to wear and put makeup on her, but then started to seem distant and jealous. She had a man living in New Jersey whom she would visit, leaving Lucilia with her 17-year-old half-brother, whom Lucilia also hadn’t seen since she was a baby. According to Lucilia, he started touching her, and when she told him to stop, he said she’d better not tell their mother or he’d just do more. This time she kept the abuse to herself, telling nobody, for fear of being punished. “I was still a virgin when I came to my mother’s house, and he ended up taking my virginity, like forced it out of me,” she says. The rapes and threats escalated, so she ran away from home.
As she walked down the street, wondering where to go, a couple of guys driving by slowed down and asked if she wanted a lift. They took her to an apartment and told her they could give her food and take care of her, but she had to give something in return. “They used to have sex with me, and I used to cry, and they’d be like, ‘Shut up,’” she says. They thought it was entertaining to have a 12-year-old drink and smoke weed with them. She was there for a couple of months, until one day the men found a missing-child flyer with her photo on it. That same day, she was given a cup of liquor that made her feel sick after she drank it. She was delivered back to her mother in an incoherent state and then hospitalized. The doctors found ecstasy and cocaine in her system. No charges were filed.
Lucilia turned 13 and started at a new school that fall. One day, her mother confronted her and said she’d heard that she was “being nasty” with a boy. When Lucilia denied that she had done anything but hug him, her mother punched her in the mouth. The next day, with a split lip, she ran away again, this time to the ice-skating rink in Prospect Park. The cops found her at McDonald’s; when she screamed that she didn’t want to go back to her mother and banged her head on the ground, they took her to the Kings County Hospital psych ward. She was released to a city-run group home in Manhattan, where she says she was threatened with a curling iron by a worker. When she said she wanted to leave, they unlocked the door for her.
She got on the train to Brooklyn, met some guys, and left with them. They took her to a party and then brought her to an apartment, where one of the guys held her down on the bed while she was gang-raped by his friends, one after another, until she was injured and bleeding. The last guy who came in the room did a double take and asked how old she was. He said he wouldn’t let any of the other men hurt her if she wanted to leave with him. He took her to his apartment, washed and cleaned her wounds, and didn’t ask anything of her, but she got the idea that he would be her boyfriend. A week later, however, he told her that he had to go upstate because of a death in his family. He would leave her with his cousin and come right back for her. His cousin’s name was Romeo.
Romeo had five other girls living in his house, a small bungalow facing a park on Guy R. Brewer Boulevard in South Jamaica. He told Lucilia that he would take care of her, but how would she pay him back? He had sex with her, and the next night took her to the “track” on Rockaway Boulevard, where she turned her first trick. Romeo gave her the name Paradise—all the girls had street names—and started telling her all about himself and how his business worked. When she said it was stupid to tell her all that information, he hit her so hard she fell to the floor. Before his cousin came back to pick her up, Romeo told her, “You’re not going nowhere. You stayin’ here with me. I will beat the shit out of you in front of him, and then I will beat him up in front of you.” So when his cousin got there, Lucilia said she would stay with Romeo.
That winter, Romeo took Lucilia to the track, to bachelor parties, and to clubs—including Club Kalua, which would be the scene of the Sean Bell shooting almost three years later—where she drank to get up her nerve to dance nude on a platform and have sex with customers in VIP rooms. Soon, she was the “bottom bitch” of the house, the one making the most money. Romeo taught her the rules of the Game: When a girl is on the street and she sees a pimp on the sidewalk, she has to get off the sidewalk, into the street, and not make eye contact with him or talk to him. Otherwise, she is “out of pocket” and has “caught a charge”—that pimp has a claim on her and either her own pimp has to pay a fine or else she is now the property of the new pimp. She can also be put under “pimp-arrest,” when a group of pimps surround a girl on the sidewalk and she has to squat, put her head down, and not speak or make eye contact until her own pimp comes to get her. The degradation and the threats induced a kind of Stockholm syndrome. “People always ask, ‘Why don’t they just leave?’” says Kim McLaurin, a supervising attorney at Legal Aid’s Juvenile Rights division in Queens. “But it’s the same thing with those kids in Missouri—people said, ‘He’s out there riding his bike on the street. Why doesn’t he just ride away?’”
One night, Lucilia went to the store, where a guy asked if she wanted him to pay for her. She said sure. Then he said he was a pimp and she’d just gotten a charge. She bolted out of the store and ran back to the house, terrified. The pimp from the store called Romeo and said he had to give her up or pay a $5,000 fine, but Romeo refused. “Well, if I see your bitch on the street,” the other pimp said, “I’m-a just snatch her and beat the shit out of her and then make her go make my money.” And that’s what he tried to do. One night, he jumped out with a bunch of other pimps and tried to pimp-arrest her. “I ran,” Lucilia says. “I ran so fast I was like a mile away already.” She ducked into a building where she knew some teenage guys who sometimes came to the house to smoke weed or buy sex. “I was like, ‘Yo, call my daddy for me,’ and they knew who my daddy was. Romeo came and got me in the car, and he’s like, ‘Oh, my God, this is why I made you my bottom bitch, ’cause you know how to follow all the rules!’” A week later, she was arrested on the track at Pennsylvania Avenue. She did what Romeo had trained her to do: She told the cops that her name was Sharlene Brown and that she was 16—ensuring that she would be sent to Rikers and processed as an adult. She was back out in a week.
On Memorial Day weekend, Romeo and another pimp, Sticky, who had moved in with them, decided to bring the girls to Atlantic City for a week or so to make some big cash. The morning of their return home, they stopped for breakfast, and Lucilia got sick from something she ate. The pain was so sharp by the time they got on the bus that she cried and vomited all the way to Manhattan, with Romeo shouting at her to shut up. The police were called and met them at the Port Authority Terminal. They arrested Lucilia, but Romeo got away.
The arrest was on June 10, 2004. This time, Lucilia admitted that she was 13. She was locked up behind razor wire in Bridges, a juvenile jail up in the Bronx. She was issued a blue jumpsuit and assigned a number. Her case was prosecuted over the summer. She was transported to and from Family Court in handcuffs and leg shackles.
Sergeant Sue McConnell, the commanding officer of the NYPD’s Juvenile Crime Squads in Brooklyn and Queens, met with Lucilia and asked her to help build a case against Romeo and Sticky. Despite the risk to herself as a state’s witness, Lucilia cooperated, and Romeo’s arrest was announced with great fanfare on August 23 by the Queens D.A.’s office. (He and Sticky pleaded guilty and got two-to-six years and three-to-six years, respectively, in state prison.) Then it was Lucilia’s turn to be sentenced. “We’re locking up girls,” says Rachel Lloyd, the founder of GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services) a nonprofit in Harlem led by survivors of the sex trade, “for things that have been done to them.”
On August 24, Lucilia’s 14th birthday, right after she testified against Romeo and Sticky to the grand jury, she was sent upstate for a year to Edwin Gould, a juvenile-detention facility. Soon after Lucilia arrived, she was hospitalized and put on psychotropic medication. “I started suffering depression,” she says. “Nobody wanted to be involved with me. I had counseling, but the counseling didn’t help. You haven’t been through what I’ve been through, so don’t say you understand me and you understand how I feel, because you don’t know how it feels.”
In the summer of 2005, after Lucilia had done her time, she was moved to Leake & Watts, another state juvenile facility, in Yonkers. She could have been released if there were somewhere for her to go. There wasn’t. The state was prepared to keep her in the system another three years, until she was 18. Instead, on May 17, 2006, she went AWOL.
Lucilia didn’t run back to the streets. She showed up at her mother’s door. But she got into a fight with her mother’s boyfriend, who screamed at her, “You just came out of prostitution, you a little whore, a little slut!” Her mother told her she had to leave. She stayed with friends and got a job bagging groceries, saving up to get to Virginia, beyond the reach of the state warrant that had been issued after she went AWOL. The same week in December that she left for Virginia, Lucilia’s mother got a subpoena to come to court and give up any information she had about her daughter’s whereabouts. The day after Christmas, Lucilia got a call from her half-brother, who told her that her mother was sick in Kings County Hospital. She got on a bus and went back to New York. She bought presents and balloons and a get-well card and met him across the street from the hospital. It was a setup. The cops were there, too.
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.
Robert J. Flores is the head of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the Department of Justice. He is a former Manhattan A.D.A. who now administers the federal funds that fight the sex trafficking of minors in New York. “There’s a suggestion that this is a type of prostitution,” he says. “It’s not. It’s really the commercialized rape of our children.” Yet even he backs off from anything that looks like decriminalization. “We don’t want to see child prostitution legalized,” Flores continues. “The fact that this conduct remains illegal serves as a warning for everybody, including the teenagers, that they are doing something that’s wrong. But that does not equate with treating that child as an offender.”
Except, of course, that it does.