ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Anchorage police and the FBI say teens are exploited in the sex trade more than most Alaskans realize -- and while society runs away from the problem, teens continue to run towards it.
Officials say the key to preventing the spread of teen sex trafficking is to keep better track of runaways and get them help. The Covenant House Crisis Center in downtown Anchorage is one place to gain insights into the problem.
“We let them come in here and they’re able to pick out a few items,” said Covenant House’s Lauren Rice, as she opened up a closet stacked with donated jeans, shirts, suits and other gently worn clothing. “This is really important, particularly for keeping them enrolled in school and also for job searching, just so they’re comfortable and they have things to wear.”
As a community relations worker, it’s Rice’s job to get the word out to the community about how people can help. Currently, Covenant House is the only shelter in Alaska for homeless young people. It serves about 700 people a year between the ages of 13 and 20.
About 40 percent of these Covenant House clients are aging out of the state foster-care system. On average, about three out of four have no job -- a number that’s even higher for kids from rural Alaska.
Covenant House estimates that about 30 percent of those who stay at the Crisis Center have engaged in what’s known as “survival sex,” trading sex for food or a place to stay -- and it’s not just girls.
“Our boys are just as vulnerable as our girls are,” says Rice. “A lot of times, they are more silent victims.”
Covenant House does not track the number of teens who have engaged in prostitution, nor does it have any specific programs for kids who are survivors of sex trafficking.
There are a number of teens currently in Covenant House programs who have been trafficked, but Channel 2 wasn’t allowed to interview them. Rice says their situations are still too fragile and potentially dangerous, because they live in constant fear of being tracked down by their pimps and forced back into prostitution.
Rice adds that Covenant House staffers also have to keep their guard up for girls sent to the shelter to recruit other girls for their pimps, or “daddies” as they’re called on the street. In the meantime Covenant House has a full plate, making sure kids are fed, clothed and housed and steered towards finishing their education and getting jobs.
Police say it’s important that Covenant House keep doing what it does, because odds are the longer a runaway is on the streets, the likelier they are to be drawn into survival sex or wind up with a pimp.
“It’s a way to support themselves,” says Sgt. Kathy Lacey, who heads up the Anchorage Police Department’s Vice Unit. “They have to start making a lot of cash, and it’s difficult to go straight and get that regular job at minimum age, especially if they don’t have any training.”
Lacey says more attention needs to be paid to teens who are constant runaways.
“I’m not talking about the rebellious teenager that runs away one time,” says Lacey. “But I’m talking about a chronic runaway, somebody who’s running away from home; there’s a problem at home, and that’s why they’re running away.”
A runaway report to the APD triggers an automatic response, but if the problems at home involve drugs, domestic violence or sexual abuse, parents often stop asking police for help.
“They don’t want to call police about a runaway after a couple of times, because they don’t want law enforcement coming and knocking at their door anymore,” Lacey said.
When parents quit reporting, it’s easier for teens to fall off the radar.
“If they’re not reported as runaway kids and don’t have a family looking for them, those are throwaway kids,” Lacey says.
At the McLaughlin Youth Facility, many of the girls are frequent runaways, kids like one 17-year-old we’ll call Brenda -- which isn’t her name, but a pseudonym to protect her identity.
“My mom is currently in Hiland Mountain serving time,” says Brenda.
As far as Brenda knows, her father was out on probation. She’s heard that he’s violated the conditions of his release, so he’s on the run.
Given her family history, which Brenda says has been filled with addiction and turmoil, it’s easy to understand why she was often on the run herself.
At McLaughlin, Brenda carries on the family tradition of incarceration. Among the many stones in her backpack: trying marijuana at the age of 9, using meth and heroin at 13.
Brenda says she had a close call with prostitution when she ran away from a treatment center with another girl in the program.
“I was 13 at the time and she was a prostitute,” says Brenda, who followed the other teenager to an apartment. “I guess those guys with her were her pimp. And she ended up getting in a fight with them, and I ended up getting locked in a bathroom, having a gun held to my head and telling me, if I go anywhere, they’re gonna kill me.”
Brenda says she was trapped in the bathroom for three days and finally managed to escape out of a window.
Stories like this are common, according to Sgt. Lacey.
“And you’re struck by the fact that really, they’re still little kids. But they seem so hardened -- they talk about sex acts and they talk about prices, and you know, they’re jumping into a car with a guy.”
Police say keeping teens off the street is runaways is key to keeping them out of prostitution. Covenant House tries to do that, but the numbers of teens seeking help continues to grow. On many nights, the shelter has to put mattresses on the floor in the downstairs commons area to accommodate the overflow.
Covenant House is planning to break ground on a new facility next spring, which will help ease the shortage of emergency housing. It will also provide a safer location and more health services. The projected cost is about $20 million, and Covenant House is actively fundraising.
A report called “Youth in Crisis,” produced by Covenant House in collaboration with the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, finds that teens from outside Anchorage and out-of-state make up the largest increases in teens seeking help.
The number of Alaska Native youth in need also continues to grow. Few staying at the Crisis Center have a high-school diploma -- and none coming from rural Alaska have a diploma or a GED.
Covenant House is trying a variety of ways to draw attention to teen homelessness, while at the same time trying to help broken teens from broken families find ways to help themselves.
In February, it brought in the rock group Static Cycle to perform an acoustic set during the lunch hour and talk with the teens about dealing with addiction. Most of the members of the group, which recently broke into the national music scene, are from Alaska. Static Cycle is planning to donate some of the proceeds from a recent concert to Covenant House.
“I grew up in a dysfunctional family; I grew up surrounded by drugs and alcohol,” the group’s lead singer, Jared Navarre, told the teens. “There’s no escaping it as a child, I’m sure a lot of you guys know.”
Navarre says teen homelessness, addiction and prostitution are symptoms of the breakdown of the family -- and he says he’s living proof that there’s hope.
“I don’t think people understand how bad it is,” Navarre said. “You can search for affirmation through drugs, alcohol, sex, whatever it may be. But ultimately, that’s what the cry for help is.”
Those on the front lines in the fight against teen sex trafficking say for many teens, prostitution is a cry for help -- that not only needs to be heard, but requires a response. They say more research and programs to address it would help, as well as stronger state laws against the crime.
Contact Rhonda McBride at email@example.com