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Published: Saturday, 1/14/2006

The teen sex trade

ONE of the most disturbing revelations in The Blade s three-part series on teenage prostitution was how the multi-state sex ring, run with grim precision by Toledo pimps and stocked with Toledo girls as young as 12, went undetected by law enforcement authorities.

Police and juvenile court officials admit to having been blindsided by the federal crackdown, ironically dubbed Innocence Lost, which culminated in a 102-page indictment unsealed the week before Christmas.

Even the local assistant U.S. attorney conceded that we here in Toledo had no idea that this was going on until recently. Prostitution, he mused, has become a mobile business, one sophisticated and tough to detect when its youthful products can be co-opted or kidnapped and shuttled across the country so quickly by brutally efficient managers.

Perhaps this shocking criminal enterprise could have been prevented from growing to such proportions had the FBI not had its attention diverted by the task of tracking potential terrorists for most of the past four years.

Note to new Toledo Police Chief Jack Smith: What you don t know can hurt you. But, then, he may already understand the concept, based on the lack of intelligence that left police less than fully prepared for October s gang riot, which exploded when neo-Nazis visited the city.

It would be a mistake, however, to blame law enforcement solely for the surprise and outrage engendered by the prostitution crackdown, illuminated so capably by staff writers Robin Erb and Roberta de Boer.

Instead, we might reflect more usefully on the state of a society in which so many young girls are neglected and sexually abused, leaving them perfect targets for wily pimps.

One reason the steady out-of-state stream of girls did not become a warning beacon to local authorities is that young teen runaways are so common these days. Often, teens are left on their own by shiftless, negligent parents to become easy prey for sex-trade recruiters. Many times, their disappearance is not even reported to police.

No one knows where they are and, worse, no one seems to care.

Sexual abuse and violence are common denominators for most of these troubled girls. Each of the teens interviewed by a county researcher had a horrific history: one was raped at 8; another was thrown down a stairway by her boyfriend when she became pregnant at 12.

Given such familiar stories repeated in more homes than any of us would care to admit it is little wonder that underage prostitution flourishes. Even a small bit of flattery and attention becomes, in the malleable mind of a young girl, better than nothing and often reason enough to disappear into the desperate ranks of this cruel business.

At the same time, the skill shown by the pimps at organizing and maintaining an immense and complex multi-state enterprise remains a source of curiosity, if only for its perverseness. How successful could they be if they channeled their energy into becoming legitimate business people instead of pimps?

But such criminals can be dealt with. Until our society comes up with a collective solution to the pervasive abuse and neglect that pushes girls into prostitution, there will be many more stories like Lost Youth: Teenage Sex Trade.



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