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.