The nationwide Operation Cross Country raids that took place earlier this week are noteworthy for more than the rescue of 105 children in the sex trade and the arrest of 150 alleged pimps.
The cooperative effort by federal, state and local authorities shone a spotlight on an aspect of child prostitution that hasn’t received much attention: its link to the foster care system. It’s estimated that about 60 percent of children trafficked for sex have been in foster care or in the custody of social services.
The pimps are all too aware that among their best prospects are children who have run away from home or foster care or who are in foster homes because of family problems. These pimps start out acting as protectors — and then become exploiters.
The Justice Department estimates that one-third of teenagers living on the street become involved with prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. That’s a lot of kids, given that almost 450,000 children run away every year.
Many of these children are trafficked on Internet sites such as Backpage.com. And the old stereotype of the big-city pimp hanging out at the bus station trolling for runaways is a little moldy: It’s not uncommon these days for pimps to lure youngsters into the sex trade by contacting them through such social networking sites as Facebook and DateHookUp.com.
While Operation Cross Country had positive results, the fact is that it’s made only a small dent in a big problem. What’s needed is a two-pronged approach: more intervention with children from broken homes so they’re less likely to feel that prostitution is their only option and tougher penalties for those who pay to have sex with minors.
Washington state has among the toughest penalties nationwide for patronizing a child for sex; it is a Class B felony here – the equivalent of second-degree robbery. The penalty is a maximum of 10 years in prison (21 to 27 months is the standard range) and a requirement to register as a sex offender for 15 years. Previously, the maximum penalty for first-time offenders was 90 days in jail.
Too often, however, the charge is pleaded down. Although the tougher charge has been on the books since 2010, it is believed that a Sumner man convicted in July was the first person in the state to face the longer sentence. He was given 21 months for commercial sex abuse of a 17-year-old girl in SeaTac.
In the long run, seeking tougher sentences for those who pay to have sex with children would probably be more effective than an occasional raid. Using children this way is the equivalent of child rape, and should be treated as such.