By Lane DeGregory, Times Staff Writer In Print: Sunday, May 2, 2010
The night Kwansha Collins got home from juvie, her mom fixed her favorite dinner: fried chicken with steamed string beans.
Kwan carried her plate into the front bedroom, ate alone on her nephew’s SpongeBob sheets. The purple velvet chair her grandmom had given her was still by the closet — the last remnant of her girlhood.
It was early April. This was her first night home in three months. She had run away 15 times in the last year. Again and again, the police had picked her up on the street and in cheap motels, where she was selling pot — and being sold. Kwan is 17.
She and her mom promised each other things would be different this time.
“You keep running, but I’m here for you now,” her mom, Shangria Walker, told her. “From now on.”
On Kwan’s second day home, her mom told her about a sleep-away school where she could get help and catch up on classes. She could start Monday.
For a while, Kwan was quiet. “Is it far away?” she asked.
Too far to run back here, her mom said.
That night, Kwan’s mom barbecued ribs. Kwan ate her dinner and fell asleep about midnight.
By 4 a.m., she was gone. Again.
Some teenagers run away to test their freedom and smoke a joint with friends. Others want to escape abuse. Many run from foster care.
But for a disturbing number of teenage girls — dozens in the Tampa Bay area alone — running away leads to prostitution. Pimps prey on them, make them believe they will look after them. Then pistol-whip them and force them to work two to a room.
“It’s an urban crime problem that no one really talks about,” said FBI Special Agent Gregory Christopher, who heads the Tampa Area Crimes Against Children task force. The group includes two Hillsborough County deputies and a Tampa police officer. Instead of arresting the girls, the task force tries to help them.
“These are our girls, caught up in sex trafficking right here,” Christopher said.
More than 1.6 million children run away each year, according to the National Runaway Switchboard. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has 1,610 missing person reports involving child prostitution.
At his office near the Tampa airport, Christopher said he averages two tips a week about teenage prostitutes.
“There’s such a big sex industry in this area,” he said. “We just have a lot of underage girls dancing in clubs and walking the streets.”
Last year, Christopher helped create an FBI task force on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking — one of 34 across the country. Already, officers in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have pulled 24 teenagers out of prostitution, some as young as 13. They have made more than 60 arrests, put away pimps ages 20 to 60.
“These girls are victims of the lives they’ve led,” Christopher said. “Many have never had a dad or a boyfriend. Many lose their virginity to a pimp or john. It’s hard to break that psychological and emotional dependency.”
When officers raid motels or “trap houses,” where pimps live and deal drugs, some girls seem grateful, Christopher said. They’re tired of being beaten, exhausted from servicing strangers.
Other girls spit in his face. It’s hard to help those girls, he said.
“Kwan is the perfect example,” Christopher said. “She needs our help. I’ve never seen a runner like her. But the system just isn’t set up to help these girls.”
Christopher, 32, met Kwan while working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Her story is tragic, he said, but typical.
You can get a girl away from a pimp, pick her up and take her to jail — or back home. But then what? Only two residential programs in the United States offer programs specifically for teenage runaways who have become prostitutes, Christopher said. Neither is in Florida.
Of the two dozen teenage prostitutes Christopher has helped during the last year, half have gone back to the streets. Including Kwan.
• • •
On a Saturday in early April, the morning after Kwan got home from juvenile detention, she sat with reporters in her mom’s living room, talking about her childhood, her time in foster care, her reasons for running and her life on the streets.
Lean and tough, she’s only 4-foot-9, barely 100 pounds, with braided hair and sad eyes. She insists she’s not scared of anything or anyone.
When she was little, Kwan remembers, she and her baby brother were almost always alone. Her dad was in jail and her mom was out doing drugs somewhere. Kwan, only 4, would tuck her brother in at night, tell him mom would be home soon.
They would wake up and Kwan would change her brother’s diaper, dig through the trash for what was left of someone else’s dinner.
She remembers the day her grandparents came to get them. Their mom was gone, of course. When Kwan’s grandmom saw the two filthy children, she wrapped them in towels and carried them to her car.
For eight years, Kwan and her brother lived with their grandparents in St. Petersburg. They had their own rooms, closets full of clothes. They sang in the church choir where their granddad preached, traveled to New York, visited museums. Their grandmom said she showed them “a world outside the ghetto; something to aspire to.”
Kwan never told anyone her mom was only a few miles away, doing coke. She never talked about how every birthday her mom would promise to come by, and then fail to show up.
In fifth grade, when Kwan failed the FCAT, kids called her stupid. They picked on her for being small. At the bus stop, someone hung her by her backpack straps over the stop sign.
By middle school, she started stealing. She would sneak into her grandparents’ room and take money, $40-$100 at a time. She says she gave it to boys.
“She thought it would make them like her,” said her grandmom, Marion Walker.
School officials said Kwan did bad things with boys in the bathroom. Kwan’s grandmom said she tried everything: psychiatrists, police, prayer. “I’d raised seven kids, but I couldn’t keep her.”
Kwan was 14 when her grandmom signed her over to foster care. “There were four other girls in your room there,” Kwan said. “They’d take your clothes, put lotion in your underwear, pee in your bed.”
One night, after everyone else was asleep, she climbed out the window. “I didn’t even think about it,” she said. “I just started walking.”
• • •
Some girls are kidnapped, snatched off the streets. “Those are the rare ones,” the FBI’s Christopher said.
Most teenage prostitutes start because they want someone to love them, or at least look after them, he said. Because they need somewhere to stay. Or they get hungry.
“It can be as easy as a pimp rolls up in his Escalade, calls out the window, ‘Hey, Baby! You’re looking good. I’ll buy you something to eat,’ ” Christopher said. “A $4.99 McDonald’s value meal is usually enough.”
The guy talks so sweetly, says he’ll be her daddy. He talks her into having sex, then tells her if she loves him, she’ll do this one thing for him.
“She might resist at first. So he gets her high on drugs, or he beats her, or both. So she turns her first trick,” the agent said. “We’ve seen these girls pistol-whipped, burned and branded, tattooed with their pimp’s name. They become property.”
When Kwan left her foster home that first time, “it was dark, 3 a.m., and I just headed for the south side, where I knew people,” she said. Pretty soon, she saw a girl she had gone to school with. “She had run away too, told me she was staying with her boyfriend at the Crystal Inn. She said he wanted her to trick for him. I was like, that’s not right. She was only 13.”
Kwan didn’t want to go with her friend. But she had no other option. “He told me I had to start tricking for him too. I said, ‘No.’ And he hit me.” Later, she said, he kicked her out of his car and backed into her. She limped back to the group home.
A couple of weeks later, she was gone again. “I don’t know why,” Kwan said. When her friend’s pimp saw her, he punched her for running away from him.
“Then he went out and got Mountain Dew and some chips and candy. There were all these people in the hotel room and it got really hot. I don’t know, maybe he put something in my soda.”
She remembers the bed spinning, closing her eyes. “When I woke up, some guy was on top of me. Someone else was holding me down. I’m crying, and he starts hitting me. So I just close my eyes.”
Some pimps make their girls walk the streets: Nebraska Avenue in Tampa, 34th Street in St. Petersburg. Others advertise online. Spend 10 days searching adult services ads around Tampa Bay, the FBI agent said, and you’ll find more than 1,000 selling sex. Many even post photos of young prostitutes.
“There’s a big market for teenagers,” Christopher said. “And guys are willing to pay a lot more for a virgin.” Prices range from $200-$300 for a half-hour, depending on what the john wants.
Kwan never knew how much she was worth. The pimp always took the money. “Usually there would be two of us in the room, one on each bed, and he’d bring in five or six dudes,” she said. “We’d mostly do ’em one at a time. But if it was his homeboy’s birthday or something, he’d want us to do two guys at once.”
She wasn’t afraid, she insisted. It was just . . . something she had to do. At least she didn’t have to sleep in that foster home, or on the street.
• • •
The cops found Kwan outside the Economy Inn a day after her most recent run. It was April 10. They dropped her off at her mom’s house.
Shangria Walker said she has been sober for almost two years. A year ago, she completed a program and had her parental rights restored. She wants to care for Kwan, if Kwan will let her.
“Now you better stay put this time, you hear?” Shangria told her daughter.
Kwan had to be in court the next week. She was facing prior charges of grand theft auto and marijuana possession. If you don’t show up, her mom said, they could charge you as an adult. Believe me, you don’t want to go to prison.
Kwan nodded, said she understood. Just after 9 p.m., while her mom was doing dishes, Kwan slipped out again. Usually, she left the door open. This time, she locked it behind her.
When it was time for court, there was no sign of her.
“Does anyone have any idea where she is?” asked Judge Raymond O. Gross. “I know a lot of effort has gone into assisting Miss Collins in the past.”
Kwan’s mother spoke up. Isn’t there some way, she asked the judge, to hold her somewhere and get her some help?
“That depends on what kind of shape she’s in,” the judge said. “She’s got to get to the point where she’s ready to accept help.”
There was one more thing, Shangria told Kwan’s lawyer. She whispered in his ear. Together, they approached the bench.
Maybe it won’t make any difference, Shangria said. But it should.
Kwan is pregnant.
• • •
She showed up in court Thursday wearing the yellow smock of juvie. The cops had picked her up outside another motel.
Her court-appointed lawyer talked to the judge, who gave her eight months probation for possessing marijuana, trespassing and resisting arrest. She’ll face the car theft charges later. For now, Kwan’s lawyer told the judge, Tampa Bay Academy has a bed for her. The residential treatment center in Riverview has therapeutic programs for runaways, children who have been sexually abused, teenagers with depression or mental disorders, and pregnant teens.
It’s not a perfect scenario, but it’s the best place for Kwan, her lawyer and counselor said.
Kwan’s mom hopes she will stay at Tampa Bay Academy. But she has her doubts. It’s not a lock-down facility