Before 1979, it was relatively rare to find a child under age 18 in prostitution on the streets of North American cities. If they ran away from home, police could pick them up and put them in detention.
But that began to change when most states and Canadian provinces, led by California in 1976, passed laws prohibiting police from pulling abandoned or abused kids off the street and putting them behind bars with adult or juvenile criminals.
It was a move made in the name of civil liberties - and it spared innocent children from assault and other abuses in jail.
Yet it has also backfired.
"Now you've got kids on streets without a home," says Lois Lee, director of Children of the Night in Los Angeles, one of North America's leading authorities on children in prostitution. "And the guy who ordinarily would not think of having sex with a 14-year-old can now justify having sex with them ... because here's a child whom society doesn't care about. He's giving them food for an evening, a place to sleep."
More than 577,000 children in North America run away or are "thrown away" (told not to come home) and end up on city streets each year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va. Many end up in prostitution. Today somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 juveniles under age 18 are trapped in prostitution in North America. The average age of entry into prostitution is 14.
The reason North American children are sought after in the first place - the demand that makes the business lucrative and puts the procurers out on the streets in force looking for new bodies - is the growing appetite among US and Canadian men for sex with girls and boys.
In North America, the typical customer of an adolescent or child prostitute is a middle-aged, white, affluent, male living in suburbia, research studies and Monitor interviews show. He has a good job, a wife, and children. And he is looking for other people's children - usually an adolescent girl - to have sex with.
Among this customer group, every profession is represented - from electricians to policemen. Less stereotypical, however, is the new breed of young, high-school and college-age "johns."
"It's all about how little boys are raised - their attitudes," says Ericka Moses, a teen counselor at PRIDE, a group trying to get women and young girls out of prostitution. "What do you do when you turn 18? If you're a guy in Minneapolis, someone takes you downtown to a strip club."
Going after customers
To deflate a growing demand for child sex, child advocates say police need to crack the whip on the white, middle-class customers - not only on the children and their pimps. The only way that can happen, advocates say, is by arresting these men and charging them with sexual exploitation of a minor - which carries a five-year prison term in Canada and similar sentences in the US as well.
"We are letting men, the customers, off the hook by acting like they are such animals that they just have to be provided for," says Alvin Erickson, a Lutheran minister in Minneapolis who educates parents and children about the pitfalls of prostitution.
But letting male customers off the hook is exactly what happens routinely in Vancouver, Minneapolis, Toronto, and most other North American cities, child advocates say.
In Vancouver, for instance, children in prostitution are charged 59 times more often for selling sex than the men who exploit them. In six years, only six men were charged in Vancouver for buying sex from a child, but 354 juveniles were charged for selling it. Of the six men who were charged, only two were convicted.
"We recognize that these children are victims - not perpetrators," says Vancouver Vice Squad Sgt. Gord Elias says. "Most kids are not out there because they want to be. They each have their own story - and they're pretty scary. So, we're going after the pimps big time. That's our focus."
In Lexington, Ky., the police department has formed an Exploited and Missing Child Unit. Teams from that unit - one social worker and one police officer - investigate together in a bid to arrest both the customer and pimp.
In Canada, however, police say they are restricted by several legal issues. First, Canada's legal stance toward prostitution is ambiguous. On the one hand, prostitution itself is legal nationwide. On the other hand, "communicating" that intention - the act of soliciting the service in a public place - is illegal in Canada.
The end result is that police get a mixed message and don't know whether to crack down or let prostitution slide. Canadian police typically respond to local political and community pressure, sweeping prostitution out of neighborhoods - anywhere, as long as it is less visible to the community.
Second, Vancouver and Toronto police say current laws prohibiting sexual exploitation of children are practically unenforceable because they require the girls' testimony to convict customers and pimps. Pimps routinely threaten and intimidate the girls and their families if they testify.
Further, police say they cannot use distance microphones to record conversations between children in prostitution and customers because of constitutional privacy concerns. They say they must see the sex act occurring or get testimony from the girl to convict a customer or a pimp.
By contrast, American law is less ambiguous than Canada's on the issue of domestic prostitution, which is outlawed in all states but Nevada. That should make things easier for police and prosecutors.
Still, the pattern of Canada and US law enforcement is similar. More pimps are being thrown in jail. Young girls continue to be charged and fined frequently. But customers are rarely charged and typically pay only a small fine.
The problem has less to do with a lack of legal authority, and much more to do with justice system and societal attitudes that do not place a priority on stopping juvenile prostitution. Most of the needed laws are in place.
Lack of enforcement
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, four major pieces of national legislation were passed in the US relating to child or juvenile prostitution: the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act; the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment and Adoption Reform Act; the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act; and the Missing Children Act.
But because of lack of enforcement, this legislation appears to be "generally ineffective, at least as measured by numbers of convictions," writes George Kent, a sociologist at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.
Canada's Parliament is now on the verge of passing newly revamped child sex exploitation statutes that provide a new mandatory minimum prison sentence for pimps.
The same bill would also allow prosecution of Canadians who travel abroad for sex with children, with prison sentences up to 10 years. It also provides for less-intimidating videotaped testimony by prosecution witnesses.
Canada's sex-tourism law, once passed, will put it alongside 11 other countries that already have such laws.
The US already has in place a sex tourism law, passed in 1994, which makes it a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison for an American citizen to travel abroad for the purposes of having sex with someone under age 18. But what is needed to make this law and all the other laws already in place work is political will, observers say.
"I know how the American public and politicians are," says Ms. Lee. "They will say it's terrible what is happening to children in Cambodia or Thailand - and say, 'Yes, we have a little bit, too.'
"But that's baloney. We have a lot of it in this country, and a lot of powerful, wealthy people are involved in it. You've got teen prostitutes working three blocks from the White House. We're not any better than any other country - and we don't handle it any better. We've got to wake up to the problem before we can solve it."
What advocates propose:
* More police computer links to track pimps moving children from city to city
* Laws to make it easier to nail customers of child prostitutes
* Curfew laws that permit police to put child prostitutes in long-term care
* More shelters for runaways and programs to help children out of prostitution
* Laws that allow women to sue their former pimps
* More community awareness