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They have a radarlike ability to spot vulnerable young girls, and they're masters at setting up prostitution rings so sophisticated that local police rarely notice.
"Why didn't we know? Because it wasn't going on here," said Mike Navarre, Toledo's assistant police chief.
A federal indictment unsealed last month revealed a subculture of brutality, high profit, and low regard for the lives of girls as young as 12. Dave Bauer, an assistant U.S. attorney in Toledo, called the 102-page document "a pretty damning manifesto of what's been going on here."
Judge James Ray of the Lucas County Juvenile Court agreed that teen prostitution went largely undetected.
"We didn't know who these girls were because they were never charged with prostitution," he said. "They'll come in as runaways, or probation violations. We weren't looking for prostitution, and lo and behold, we didn't find any. We didn't connect the dots."
Authorities say pimps rotated Toledo teens through truck stops and rest areas in Pennsylvania, California, Michigan, Indiana, Georgia, Maryland, Tennessee, California, Florida, Louisiana, and other states.
"Key [pimps] were from Toledo, and they were befriending these young girls who ran away ... and then they went to another state. Prostitution is about supply and demand, so they supplied the demand where it was," said Mr. Navarre, who was chief of police when the Justice Department announced results of a sweeping, two-year crackdown on underage prostitution.
The complexity of the prostitution ring took many here by surprise.
Less surprising, perhaps, was the ease with which pimps lure teenage girls into this violent underworld.
This was the case for a girl we'll call Crystal.
She was 14 years old when she fled home, traumatized by several sexual assaults and angry at her parent's divorce.
She turned to older male friends for a place to stay.
"You know, it's a typical male thing. You know what ... they're going to want if you're going to stay," she said.
For four years, she traded her body for food and shelter -- "survivor sex," a social worker dubbed it. Not yet 18, her pimp sent her to what she described as New York City "cat houses."
Last year, Crystal, 18, was interviewed by Deidra Bennett, a researcher working with Lucas County Juvenile Court officials to gauge the depth of teenage prostitution. Of the 50 girls suspected by court officials of selling their bodies, Crystal was one of five who agreed to be interviewed.
What Ms. Bennett uncovered mirrored what other researchers, and even an investigator in the recent federal case, have concluded.
"The common denominator, unfortunately, is runaways and children with some problems," said John Stossel, a lead FBI investigator of the Toledo prostitution ring.
Pimps, he added, offer girls "something better than what they're used to."
Despite the degradation and violence, for emotionally needy girls, a pimp's authority can even provide a much-wanted sense of belonging where none existed before.
"Our teenagers, they get hooked up into this group that becomes their sense of family," said Laura Linthicum of Lucas County Children Services.
UT social work researcher Celia Williamson is helping to work on programs for teen prostitutes in the juvenile justice system.
Ms. Bennett's interviews disclosed that each of the five girls came from homes of physical and/or sexual abuse. One was raped at 8 years old; another was a constant witness to her mother's sex life. One girl's mother and the mother's boyfriend sexually assaulted her.
Each also had been battered by boyfriends. At 12 years old, one girl was thrown down the stairs after her older boyfriend learned she was pregnant.
But girls are vulnerable for other reasons too: depression, learning disabilities, and social isolation, say those who have worked closely with underage prostitutes.
Pimps out to recruit "go where the kids are, where they're likely to be if they've left home or run away or would not like their parents to find them," according to John Rabun, vice-president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "You cannot underestimate the skill of these guys."
In just two or three sentences, said Mr. Rabun -- a former Kentucky social worker who became a cop to battle child prostitution -- a pimp knows if "she's starving for attention."
"He's saying, 'Oooh, honey, you're so pretty.' It's what she needs and wants to hear," Mr. Rabun said.
"Basically, it's just talking -- the very thing too many parents don't do."
The pimp buys her a burger. She stays a night or two. Eventually, guilt seals the deal.
"He says, 'I've been taking care of you for so long, it's time to pay your dues,' " said Olinka Briceno, who directs a social program in Boston to help young prostitutes and was in Toledo last fall for a national conference on prostitution.
"Their self-esteem is constantly dragged down. Their identity is lost. A 'Kim' becomes a 'Diamond,' and she's constantly called 'ho' and 'bitch,' and pretty soon she believes it," said Ms. Briceno.
Looking for help
Last summer, girls began showing up in Lucas County Juvenile Court's detention facility under such minor charges as disorderly conduct and violation of court orders.
In fact, they were material witnesses to the feds' ever-expanding case into teenage prostitution. Soon, as local court officials were briefed on the investigation, they realized they had a problem.
"We didn't know what questions to ask, and the feds didn't know squat about the juvenile justice system because they didn't have any reason to," said Judge James Ray.
What everyone did know: These girls needed special protection. Even within the county juvenile lock-up, a threat from the prostitution ring allegedly reached one of the girls, said Assistant Chief Navarre.
Apart from the safety issue, Judge Ray and others agreed that teen prostitutes -- often traumatized by years of emotionally deadening transactions -- are unlike other minors in the juvenile justice system. Yet no adequate facility or program exists here for such girls.
"Certainly there are no or few real professionals addressing the damage and trauma that teen prostitutes have experienced," Judge Ray said.
Celia Williamson is out to change that. A Ph.D. social-work researcher at the University of Toledo, for years she has studied the lives of Toledo's adult hookers.
Just last year, under a National Institutes of Health grant, she expanded her scope to include teen girls. And recently, she said, the Second Chance agency she started in 1993 for prostitution "rehab" was asked by county Children Services to accept teens into the program.
Last week, Ms. Williamson convened the first meeting of Prostitution Round Table: a coalition of criminal justice, social service, and health care officials who have agreed to cooperate in setting up communitywide protocols for helping prostitutes.
"We're hoping that anywhere a young woman or adult goes for services, that when she comes in the door she'll be asked some questions that can identify if she's been involved in prostitution," Ms. Williamson said. That way, appropriate referral or intervention can be arranged.
The only thing keeping her from opening a halfway house for adult prostitutes looking to exit the business, she said, is the expense of a sprinkler system for a North Toledo group home that is otherwise ready to open.
"With Celia's help," said Judge Ray, "were going to try and find a way to address the complexity of it all."
Ms. Williamson has a strong sense of urgency:
"At least half of the  women I've interviewed over the years said they started when they were 14 or 15. We are overwhelmed by the need, and all we can provide is just a little drop in the bucket."
Contact Robin Erb at: firstname.lastname@example.org