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Wednesday, August 23, 2000

Girls for sale

Photo Illustration by George F. Lee and David Swann, Star-Bulletin
A typical busy night in Waikiki brings residents,
tourists and young prostitutes to the streets.

Young prostitutes are
caught in a downward
spiral of despair

First of three parts

To get help
'I want a real life'
What is it?
More than statistics
Not like TV
Ways and means

by Christine Donnelly

The case notes on one runaway girl are devastating in their simplicity: "On last run mother found her working in massage parlor in Honolulu. ... Mother found girl at parlor on a mattress on the floor. She was dressed in see-through negligee with heavy make-up. Minor was embarrassed to be found by her mother in that way."

Teenage girls are bought and sold nightly in Honolulu, police and outreach workers agree. While law enforcement officials credit Hawaii's strict "geographic restriction" law for helping to clean up the streets of Waikiki and want it expanded to Wahiawa and Chinatown, social workers say the law has simply forced prostitution further underground, into the back streets, massage parlors, escort services and lap-dance clubs.

And that, they say, leaves the most vulnerable players -- teenage girls driven to the streets by abuse at home, only to become controlled by pimps -- with even fewer chances to escape the sex trade.

"Since we've cracked down on adult prostitution, one of the unintended consequences has been the stepped-up recruitment of local girls," said Meda Chesney-Lind, a University of Hawaii-Manoa women's studies professor. "It's easier to have underage girls indoors, where they are not so visible."

Chesney-Lind's latest research included analyzing the files of youths at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Center, including that of the girl found at the massage parlor.

Public debate recently has centered on making more Oahu neighborhoods "prostitution-free zones," via a state law that allows convicted streetwalkers to be banned from Waikiki or face 30 days in jail. The state Legislature this year approved expanding the number of zones, and the Honolulu City Council is considering a related measure.

But others are trying to steer the discussion toward the need for more intervention for at-risk teen-agers, blaming state budget cuts to social service agencies in the 1990s as one reason for growing problems now. Various agencies estimate there are 1,000 minors in Oahu's sex trade.

"We need services for this population, they're victims themselves," said Patricia Glancey, coordinator of the Waikiki Health Center's Care-A-Van. "They don't need jail and a record, they need help. Education, job training, medical care, a safe place to live." She believes providing social services is the best approach for prostitutes of any age, but especially minors.

Glancey passes out condoms, candy and health information to prostitutes on the streets of Waikiki, "but we can't even get into (the massage parlors and lap-dance clubs). They say 'go away, there's no prostitutes here.' "

Nanci Kreidman, executive director of the Domestic Violence Clearinghouse and Legal Hotline, heads a task force called Protect Our Children from Sexual Exploitation that is trying to define the scope of the problem and offer solutions. The task force, which includes police, federal and county prosecutors, healthcare workers, social workers, and psychologists, has so far identified three elements sorely needed in Honolulu, she said. These are:

Bullet A residential treatment center for young women trying to leave any aspect of the sex trade. It could be modeled after the "Children of the Night" centers in California, which besides providing a safe place to live, have counseling, job training and high school classes.

"It's not a prison. It's a structured place for teens who are motivated to improve their lives," Kreidman said.

Bullet Better training for service providers to identify and help at-risk youth. This includes developing prevention programs for schools.

Bullet Enhancing existing services such as drop-in centers and crisis hotlines.

Others want to see more prosecution of, and tougher penalties for, pimps and johns.

Police and prosecutors agree on the need for more social services, but say they cannot ignore that prostitution is a crime. And they note that when prostitutes get entrenched in a neighborhood, along with drug dealers and related trouble, residents begin to feel unsafe in their own homes, tourists shy away and property values fall.

Before the streetwalking ban took effect in Waikiki, there were complaints that people "could not walk down public sidewalks and streets without being repeatedly accosted and harassed by prostitutes aggressively soliciting business," said deputy prosecutor Lori Nishimura, who added that the geographic restriction has not been applied to any juveniles so far.

Moreover, she said, any initiative to reduce prostitution -- not just the geographic ban -- would likely drive it further underground and be subject to the same sort of criticism.

The prosecutor's office also dismissed complaints that the law discriminates against women. Jim Fulton of the city prosecutor's office said pimps and johns are regularly arrested and that "geographic restrictions" have been used in other cases, particularly

against drug dealers.

"In Kaneohe, we geographically restricted a kid from his own grandmother's house for selling drugs. We can ask for it as a condition of probation in any case," Fulton said.

Still, advocates such as Kreidman, Chesney-Lind and Glancey worry that the law signals an "out of sight, out of mind approach" to sex solicitation, the vast majority of which occurs not on the streets but behind closed doors.

"Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it doesn't exist," said Kreidman. "It's our job to protect children."

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Make the call

Here are some 24-hour hotlines to call for help:

Bullet Sisters Offering Support hotline: (808) 220-1501
Bullet The Sex Abuse Treatment Center: (808) 524-7273
Bullet If there is a life-threatening emergency, call the police at 911.

E-mail to City Desk

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