Lucinda now [Cass Bird photo]
When U.S. Law Criminalizes Sex Slaves
The 13-Year-Old Prostitute
Lucinda had spent more than a third of her life in foster homes before taking refuge in her grandmother’s house, where an uncle molested her when she was 10, only to be told by her grandmother that she was a whore. She moved in with her mother. Her 17-year-old brother started raping her. She ran away, fell in with older men who loved the idea of having a 12-year-old smoke dope with them, a 12-year-old they could rape at will. She became the victim of her first gang-rape at 13, soon after becoming one of six girls working for a pimp called Romeo. She was arrested for soliciting on June 10, 2004 and locked up in a juvenile prison in the Bronx. Her trips to court from there on would take place as they usually do for felons all over the United States, in leg-shackles and irons. She was sentenced to a year in prison at an Upstate New York juvenile facility. When her year was up, she should have been released, but she had nowhere to go. The state of New York decided to keep her incarcerated in the juvenile prison until she was 18, an egregious abuse of rights that apparently goes uncontested when juveniles have nowhere to turn: prison is their lifeline.
Lucinda escaped, took refuge, again, at her mother’s house, where the abuser this time was her mother’s boyfriend. She bagged groceries for a while to save money and escape the warrant out for her by going to Virginia, which she did in December 2004. The story doesn’t make clear who she had in Virginia. But once there her half-brother called her to tell her that her mother was at King’s County Hospital in Brooklyn. Bearing balloons, a card and presents, Lucinda made her way back to New York. The hospital story was a ruse. Cops were waiting for her across the street from the hospital. Her brother was turning her in. Her punishment, before Legal Aid intervened, would have been maximum security prison. But she took the stand and explained her escape, 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 was threatened, her case worker did nothing. “In one way, I knew I was wrong for AWOLing, but I probably would have been injured now, or in a hospital, or dead.”
As the Jessica Lustig article in New York magazine from which this account is taken put it,
“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 [a residential group home for girls called Girls Educational and Mentoring Services]. “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.”
Lucinda is probably among the lucky ones. The cruelties and tortures she personally endured aside, there is the matter of cruel and u unjust laws conspiring against girls her age, in her situation, in the United States:
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 March, Lucinda testified before a New York State legislative committee debating the Safe Harbor Act, which “would require localities to provide a short-term safe house to child victims of sexual exploitation, provide counseling and outreach programs and boost training for the police officers that regularly handle such cases.” The bill would also “remove prostitution from the list of crimes a teenager could be charged with as a juvenile. That would make it less likely for a girl to lie about her age to avoid months in detention.” The legislation is still pending. A hold-up? The usual conservatives and reactionaries who don’t want to give the impression that they’re decriminalizing prostitution—which, obviously, they would, and must, do, regarding juveniles (not that decriminalizing prostitution for all ages isn’t a few centuries overdue). Here’s how they put it:
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.
One final note. The week New York ran the article about Lucinda, Em & Lo, the magazine’s purported sex columnists, if indeed they are a pair, wrote a piece about sex in public places—a coincidence, obviously. It’s not as if the pair’s piece on “sexy moms” in the current issue or anal sex a few weeks ago would have made for a less inelegant conjunction with Lucinda’s horror story. But it does suggest, quite accurately I think, that the crossover isn’t only in the page-turning: Lucinda’s clients may be seen as rapist in one set of pages, mere public displayers of affection in another.