Prostitution has long been a hidden problem in Alaska, and law enforcement officials are asking for more tools to protect children lured into the trade.
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"Too many people think that prostitution is just not that big of a deal. It is not 'pretty woman' syndrome at all. It is a huge part of the nightlife in Anchorage," Sgt. Kathy Lacey of the Anchorage Police Department said during a Tuesday meeting of the Children's Caucus at the Capitol.
"People don't want to look at it. It is dirty," she said. "But keep in mind, these are your kids."
To gain support for legislation that could give law enforcement better tools to protect child prostitutes, members of a federally funded human trafficking task force, the Alaska Coalition Against Trafficking, presented lawmakers with details about the state's sex industry.
Lacey and FBI Special Agent Jolene Brunkhorst, both members of the task force said they have begun prosecuting people under federal human trafficking laws, which tend to treat prostitutes more as victims than criminals.
A Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, would put state law more in line with federal law.
It would raise the statutory age of those considered a prostituted minor from younger than 16 to younger than 18, and place a child prostitute under the state's "children in need of aid" statutes.
"This bill recognizes that human trafficking and prostitution is a real crime and not something to wink at in locker room banter," said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, a co-sponsor of the legislation. A companion measure also has been introduced in the House.
Most adult prostitutes interviewed by Lacey and Brunkhorst said they began as juveniles, many after running away from home.
National statistics have shown that one in seven children will be a runaway before the age of 18 and one in three teens on the street will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.
"It is pretty astounding, but probably factual when you stop to think about those kinds of things," said Page Decker, the Juneau Police Department's assistant chief.
He said Juneau, like all cities, has runaways. He did not comment on how extensive the problem was.
In Anchorage, the number of runaways appears to be growing. In 2005, 540 kids ran away one time in Anchorage. The following year, 783 kids were reported to have run away once.
"We have a huge runaway problem. As soon as they hit the streets, they are going to fall prey," Lacey said.
Lacey said she does not have data on the problem in Southeast Alaska, but she said it is definitely here.
Men often place ads on free classified services such as craigslist.org saying that they will be in town for a certain time frame.
"We know there are girls serving cruise ships, but how do we find out who they are?" she said.
Last month the task force visited Juneau to train local law enforcement and social service agencies on how to identify girls and women working as prostitutes and where to look. Decker said officers are also planning to attend a training conference next month in Anchorage.
"This whole effort is kind of a new look," he said.
"We will pay attention to runaways, find out if there is someone controlling them," he said.
"Typically kids can't live on the street by themselves," he said. "It is something we are telling officers to pay attention to."
Brittany Retherford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.