ANCHORAGE, Alaska — This is the fourth in a five-part Channel 2 series on teen prostitution and its toll in Alaska. In this part, reporter Rhonda McBride visits Anchorage’s McLaughlin Youth Center to hear girls’ accounts of exploitation and abuse.
The girls of Cottage 5 wear standard-issue plastic sandals and black slip-on tennis shoes at McLaughlin, but they’re anything but generic. It’s not uncommon to find girls here who have engaged in prostitution.
“They’ve lived lives by the time that they’re 12 or 13 that most people will not see in a lifetime,” said Abby Baskin-Piper, who supervises the girls in McLaughlin’s Cottage 5.
At McLaughlin, girls’ daily activities are strictly regulated. In the morning, they brush their teeth in shifts three at a time, always under the watchful eye of the staff. In one of the wings of Cottage 5, the girls aren’t allowed to keep their toothbrushes, out of fear they may find a way to sharpen the plastic handles and harm themselves.
“They go through things you almost think would have killed their souls, and they survive it,” said McLaughlin counselor Carlie Gill. “And getting them to see themselves as survivors, and as capable and as worthy of respect and friends and goals and dreams, that’s what sticks with me.”
The counselors at McLaughlin don’t have exact numbers on how many girls have been exploited in the sex trade, because most are here for other crimes such as drugs and car theft -- but in the course of treatment, it is sometimes disclosed. Staffers say if each girl’s life was a book, it would be filled with painful stories.
“Sitting here now, I don’t recall working with someone who had been involved in teen prostitution who didn’t have a history of sexual abuse,” Gill said. “With cases I’ve had over the years, I don’t remember a case where it wasn’t part of the back story. It’s horribly destructive; I almost wonder if it’s a soul killer.”
Aside from the trauma, girls have to repair damage to their day-to-day lives. Some are several grade levels behind in school, and too afraid to hold a job although they’ve sold sex on the streets or ran drugs.
“These are the same girls that are hanging out in crack houses with drug dealers, and having guns pointed at them, that are fearful to make a call to the school district to see how far they are in credits,” Baskin-Piper said. “So the degree of normalcy is different than you and me.”
The sad truth is that many of the girls at McLaughlin have a hard time dealing with normalcy. Under an agreement that we would not use their real names, a few agreed to share their stories with us.
Marie, 18, has written a poem about her mother -- a drug addict who sold her into prostitution for drugs at 16.
“Shiny jet black hair/Dark orb stare/Mommy are you there?” Marie read. “Looking into my eyes, she winked and smiled/I knew it/She was with those same guys.”
Besides being pimped by her mother for drugs, Marie has many other stones in her backpack. She was molested as a toddler, attempted suicide at 11 and was sexually abused again at 13.