This is the fifth of a five-part Channel 2 series on teen prostitution and its toll in Alaska. In this concluding part, reporter Rhonda McBride takes a look at what Alaskans can do to stop this epidemic of exploitation.
The burden of teen prostitution in Alaska falls on many shoulders. Paul Flahive, Covenant House’s outreach director, sees the impact as he makes his rounds in the community.
On a visit to the Mountain View Recreation Center, Flahive and an assistant passed out cards with contact information. He bent down to talk with one boy, who was about 12 years old.
“Do you know anyone that’s homeless who is 13 to 20?” Flahive asked.
“Yeah,” the boy said.
“Do you?” Flahive said, pressing a card into the boy’s hand. “Give them that card, man. Tell them about us.”
Flahive also handed out gloves and hats to other kids if they said they needed them. He believes it’s important to help kids help kids, because they may be in the best position to direct another child to services.
If more children are aware of the dangers of teen prostitution, they might also serve as a first line of defense. Covenant House estimates that about a third of homeless teens resort to “survival sex,” trading sex for food or housing. Once that happens, Flahive says it’s easier to be lured into prostitution rings, which use drugs to control those they exploit.
“They work them 10 hours a day,” Flahive said. “They get them high when they wake up, they get them high at night -- it’s just a devastating kind of way for a person to live. They’re basically zombies for most of the day.”
Anchorage police and the FBI have recently made some inroads into fighting organized prostitution. In 2008, 54-year-old Don Webster, aka Jerry Starr, was convicted of 28 counts of sex trafficking; his victims’ ages ranged from 13 to 30.
Another alleged prostitution kingpin, Sabil Mujahid, is set to go to trial later this year. Mujahid, 53, is accused in a sex trafficking case that involves 20 women and girls. Three of the minors Mujahid is accused of coercing into the sex trade were between 15 and 18.
These cases have brought the shadowy world of sex traffickers to light -- a world which Antonio Anderson says has a culture of its own. Anderson, who now owns a security company in Anchorage, won’t say how he comes by what he calls “intimate knowledge” of the business, but is willing to share what he knows.
On the streets, Anderson says, the letters in the word “pimp” are an acronym.
“‘Put It in My Pocket,’ that’s what a pimp does: he puts money in his pocket,” Anderson said.
Pimps feel they’re entitled to keep most if not all of what their girls bring in.
“You got four, five, six women in your household, you have to control all six women to do the exact same thing -- that’s not a full-time job?” Anderson said. “Just having a wife is a full-time job.”
For Webster, pimping was a lucrative job. During his trial, prosecutors estimated that he made $3.6 million exploiting the women in his prostitution ring. While prosecutors don’t think Webster will ever pay it back in restitution as he was ordered to in his sentence, they say the figure is a powerful statement about the true nature of the trafficking business.
Heather McMenamin-Bozart worked as a prostitute for Webster for 10 years and was one of the key witnesses in his trial. She says that even though she was one of his biggest moneymakers, he would beat her and other girls if he thought they were holding out.
McMenamin-Bozart says if Webster suspected the girls were holding out, he would do a body cavity search for money.
She also says Webster forced his workers to groom new girls and was so brazen he would send them to places like Covenant House in search of new recruits. The girls would say, “You can come with me. I can show you this whole new life. We’ll get you cleaned up. There’ll be food and we’ll love you, and we’ll take care of you. And our Daddy is the greatest guy in the world.”
The faith-based Anchorage non-profit, Mary Magdalene Home Alaska, has also had reports of pimps trying to recruit its clients. The agency serves mostly older women who are trying to reclaim their lives from prostitution.
“When you have teenagers recruiting teenagers and pimping each other out, I have a hard time dealing with that, but it’s true,” said Mary Magdalene’s program manager, Nancy Cole.
Cole says Mary Magdalene does what it can to promote awareness about teen sex trafficking, but it’s far from enough. She says the biggest challenge today is how prostitution has worked its way into the popular culture.
“Some of it starts in high school,” Cole said. “I think they were calling it last year ‘designer sex,’ where somebody has a designer bag or a Coach bag or something, and a friend has an uncle or another friend. So what’s the big deal -- then they sleep with someone, and they have the designer bag.”
McMenamin-Bozart says these attitudes make it easier for pimps to operate.
“Sometimes they like the challenge of actually beating a girl down completely,” she said. “They like girls that come from good homes. They don’t just pick the girls with the backpacks.”
But McMenamin-Bozart, who sees herself as someone who came into prostitution with a lot of stones in her backpack, including a history of sexual abuse, believes people like her are still the most vulnerable -- and are lured into sex trafficking by pimps, who get them hooked on drugs.
“People want to know why it is we don’t leave -- if it’s so bad, why don’t we leave?” McMenamin-Bozart said. “Well, here’s the deal: first of all, we get strung out on drugs. He’s our supplier, and as long as we’re at that house we’re getting what we need.”
Many girls at the McLaughlin Youth Center can speak firsthand about how drugs are used to exploit women in the sex trade.
“Clarie,” an 18-year-old girl who didn’t want to give her real name, says her first experience in prostitution came a year ago when she fell asleep on the bus and missed her stop. She got off and started to walk home, when a stranger driving by stopped to offer her a ride -- and then offered to trade sex for drugs.
“He was kind of flattering me, like, ‘Dang, girl,’” Clarie said.
Clarie says she never heard much praise from her family growing up.
“I think a lot of people, the reason why they’re pretty vulnerable is they don’t hear the words that they need to hear growing up,” Clarie said. “Things like, ‘You’re beautiful. You’re bright. You’re capable of this.’”
Clarie says she was molested by a cousin’s friend when she was 10, and has attempted suicide five times. Sometimes she cuts herself and showed the scars, saying it’s her way of showing how much she hurts on the inside.
“I think the biggest factor that prostitution has is vulnerability, and I think people feed off of that,” Clarie said.
For another girl at McLaughlin, 17-year-old “Amy,” vulnerability led to pregnancy at age 12 and the birth of a baby at 13. She began trading sex for alcohol at the age of 14, but only kept her son for six months before the state Office of Children’s Services took custody.
“I still see him today,” Amy said. “He was adopted by a family friend.”
At Akeela, which runs a drug treatment program in Anchorage, Amy’s story resonates. Executive Director Rosalie Nadeau says Akeela has worked with a lot of prostitutes over the years, but one story stands out -- that of a girl whose mother was a prostitute.
“This was just a kid who had been having sex with men that her mother gave her to, from the time she was 10, 12 years old,” said Nadeau.
The girl later came to Akeela for treatment after bearing a child. Nadeau said she was overwhelmed by the irony that both the girl and the baby were in OCS custody.
Pat Vengten, Akeela’s clinical director, has been a treatment counselor for 20 years. He says the burden of teen prostitution falls heavily on both the victim and society.
“I would say that it is costly, that we all pay the price in so many ways: in substance abuse, in medical issues that they get as a result of prostitution,” Vengten said.
There’s also the burden on the criminal justice system. Girls are rarely brought to McLaughlin on sex trafficking charges, but prostitution is frequently in the backdrop.
“I definitely think it’s a big issue,” said "Brenda," a 17-year-old girl at McLaughlin. “I think it’s more of an issue than people think that it is.”
Brenda says her own brush with prostitution came when she was 13. She had been placed in a substance-abuse treatment center and ran away with a girl she didn’t know was a prostitute. She says the girl took her to a pimp who locked her in a bathroom. After she escaped through a window, she called her grandmother for help.
Antonio Anderson says stories like these are why parents need to talk frankly with children about prostitution.
“We have to get them to understand what not to go to -- what to look for, just like we tell them in school, ‘When a man’s offering candy, don’t talk to a stranger,’” he said. “It’s the same thing.”
For rural Alaska teens, the need for awareness is even greater. One-third of the women arrested for prostitution in Anchorage are Alaska Native, and many of them come from rural communities
Patrick Anderson (no relation to Antonio Anderson), who is executive director of Chugachmuit, a regional tribal organization for Prince William Sound and the Lower Kenai Peninsula, says the numbers are tragic but don’t surprise him.
“I wish I could say I was shocked,” Patrick Anderson said. “Prostitution is one expression of the problems and with respect to prostitution, what we have to have is a discussion within the Native community about the root causes of the problem.”
He believes that Alaska Natives have more than their share of adverse childhood experiences, which stems from historical trauma.
“And as that begins to accumulate in our families, it gets passed on from generation to generation and it finds expression in these negative behaviors,” Anderson said. “We need to be talking about this trauma and we need to begin talking about what the potential solutions are.”
“I also think we need to develop more information: where do most of these young girls come from? Is there actually a pattern that they follow to prostitution?”
Meanwhile Antonio Anderson, who will neither confirm nor deny that he’s ever engaged in sex trafficking, says he knows from his experience on the street that sexual abuse is definitely part of the pattern.
“Streets are always watching,” Anderson said. “But if we keep turning a blind eye and not doing something to prevent these acts, it’s going to keep happening.”
Contact Rhonda McBride at firstname.lastname@example.org