Don't punish exploited kids

This editorial appeared in The New York Times.

Of the approximately 1.5 million children who will run away from home this year, tens of thousands will spend time working for sexual predators and selling their bodies on the streets.

According to one federal estimate, the average age of a child first used as a prostitute is between 11 and 14, but victims as young as 9 are not uncommon. Many of the sexually exploited runaways have been neglected or abandoned by families that will never report them as missing.

These battered children would have a much better chance to build normal lives if the country stopped treating them as criminals and began to see them as the victims that they clearly are.

States need to stop reflexively charging children as young as 13 with prostitution and locking them up. And Congress must rework the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act to make sure that states and localities provide sexually exploited children born in this country with the same protections and services that are routinely granted to international victims.

A study released earlier this year by The Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at the Emory University School of Law exposes the full sweep of this problem. Nearly all states allow children of just about any age to be prosecuted for prostitution — even though children are too young to consent to sex with adults.

By charging children with crimes, the report notes, the system compounds the harm done to them and deepens feelings of guilt and worthlessness that inevitably haunt victims of sexual exploitation.

The real crimes in these cases are committed by the adults who push children into selling their bodies and the adults who knowingly patronize them.