CITIZEN JOURNALISM: Crusading for children

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Tina Frundt was 14 years old when she was forced into prostitution by “Daddy,” a pimp who lured her away from her Chicago home and pushed her onto the streets of Cleveland in 1987.

Ms. Frundt, who now runs a District-based organization that crusades on behalf of child prostitutes, said “Daddy” would dress her in spiked heels, makeup and hair pieces to make her look older. He would also take her money, beat her and send her back out to make more money.

But in the beginning, their relationship was full of romantic overtones, though he was 10 or 15 years her senior. Ms. Frundt said “Daddy” initially showered her with attention, and when she complained about her parents, he listened and gave her advice.

Young Tina swallowed the bait, ran away from home and “Daddy” reeled her into a life of prostitution.

“A pimp always manipulates your fears,” she said.

Ms. Frundt, 35, recalled her story during recent testimony before D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson’s hearing on sex trafficking. Mr. Mendelson also heard from several advocacy groups that are lobbying for anend of criminal penalties against child prostitutes.

Legislation before the council would outlaw human trafficking in the nation’s capital and levy softer penalties against prostitution.

Supporters, including federal prosecutors, also want the legislation to provide increased social services for prostitutes and provide training for police officers.

Ms. Frundt, founder and executive director of Courtney's House, a D.C. nonprofit that aims to provide a safe haven for girls 11- to 17-year-olds who are trapped in the throes of sex trafficking, urged Mr. Mendelson to support the anti-human trafficking bill. The July 6 hearing was held before the Public Safety and Judiciary Committee, which Mr. Mendelson chairs. But he was the lone lawmaker who attended. Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander, Ward 4’s Muriel Bowser, Ward 3’s Mary Cheh and Ward 2’s Jack Evans were absent. All committee members are Democrats.

Ms. Frundt said that the emphasis of the bill should be on providing social services for prostitutes, not jail time for children forced into prostitution and sexual exploitation. She said the city prosecutes pimps vigorously. However, to stop child sexual exploitation Ms. Frundt wants to see law enforcement go after “Johns” who are buying sex from children.

“Some see prostitution as a crime that doesn’t have a victim,” said Karen Stauss, managing policy and legal counsel for the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that combats sex trafficking worldwide.

Prostitutes are victims in “the modern day practice of slavery,” Ms. Strauss said at the hearing.

Ms. Stauss also pushed for the creation of better reporting of sex crimes, victim’s compensation and police training on how to identify a victim of sexual servitude.

Currently, a prostitute could serve up to 15 years in prison if convicted of a single felony charge. The bill before the council would make prostitution a felony only after a third conviction. The first two charges of prostitution would be handled as misdemeanors which carry lesser jail time.

“Are we making a mistake there?” Mr. Mendelson asked Patricia Riley, a special counsel to the U.S. attorney’s office, at the hearing.

“I think not,” Ms. Riley said, defending the current sanctions. “Prostitution should neither be decriminalized nor should we rethink the provisions in the current law.

“Prostitution has caused enormous problems in many neighborhoods. It has decreased the quality of life by people who are sole entrepreneurs. They are not working with a pimp or they are voluntarily working with a pimp.”

During the hearing, it was not immediately clear the extent of prostitution in the District, and Mr. Mendelson asked the advocates to provide him with more recent statistics.

It is estimated that 293,000 American youths are currently at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation, according to the U.S. Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section. Additionally, 12 to 14 years old is the average age at which girls become victims of prostitution.

Young Tina fit that mold.

Ms. Frundt said she never knew her real parents and bounced around the foster care system for years before she was adopted at age 13, when “Daddy” baited his trap in the summer of 1986. Six months later, after being sweet talked by him and after a tiff about curfew with her parents, Tina split.

She said, “I had wonderful parents. I thought I was missing love.”

She also said she thought that “he was the only one who gets me.” So Tina ran away from home to be with “Daddy” and meet his family in Cleveland. But that family turned out to be three teen prostitutes.

During a police bust in 1988, instead of lying to the officers, she told them her real age — 15. Tina was then taken to a juvenile detention center where she stayed for a year before being released into the custody of her parents.

“What he told me was right: I would get arrested, and he would never get arrested. Nobody would believe me, and he was right,” Ms. Frundt said.

Back home in Chicago, her parents put her in a different high school where she met a young lady at a bus stop who taught here how to prostitute herself without a pimp. It’s called renegading. Tina renegaded off and on for the next 10 years.

“If there isn’t anyone to help you, it’s just a cycle,” Ms. Frundt said. “You’re gonna just keep doing what you know until someone helps you and shows you a better way.”

No one helped, Ms. Frundt said. No one intervened, she said.

“I just got tired of being sick and tired,” she said, borrowing an old phrase.

Ms. Frundt said she is committed to children and women who have had experiences similar to her own.

Since 2000, Ms. Frundt has been raising awareness about sexually exploited children. She started Courtney's House in 2008. It specializes in rescuing child victims of sex trafficking and providing services to meet their needs. Tina has helped more than 500 victims escape sex trafficking.

“I looked around and I saw people who were in a far worst situation than I was,” Ms. Frundt said. “I’m trying to figure out how to help them.”

The council is expected to vote this fall on the human-trafficking legislation.

• Joseph Young is a writer living in the District.

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