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Caged

"Caged" Continued...

Issue: "Save our cities," April 19, 2008

"She and some friends had met this guy at a mall. He paid her lots of compliments and was really showy with his money, like a guy just trying to impress a girl," Hein said.

They exchanged phone numbers. Later Melanie and a girlfriend hooked up with the guy and some of his friends.

"What got me was that when I was 15, that could have been me," Hein said. "If a nice-looking older guy was going to show interest, I might've followed him blindly. [Melanie] was from a good home with two loving parents who were active in her life."

By the time Melanie's situation turned uncomfortable, she didn't know how to get out of it. The men took the girls to an apartment where events progressed from playful flirting to "playful" sex acts to photographs-blackmail material. The men then told the girls they were all going to a party at another house, but instead drove them to California then back to Arizona.

"Now the girls are completely disoriented and have no idea where they are," Hein said.

The men wound up putting Melanie on the streets to sell herself. Melanie's story is in many ways typical. To lure their prey, predators go where girls go, which in Phoenix often means to shopping malls. Usually, these men do not fit the stereotypical definition of a pimp, but instead are clean-cut and well-dressed, posing as modeling agents or photographers.

Once a pimp succeeds in getting a girl to leave the safety of friends and familiar places, he may either force her to submit (as with Jade) or "groom" her (as with Melanie), sometimes promising luxury and independence. Eventually, though, the girl becomes his captive. In one 2005 Phoenix case, a pimp "worked" five girls, ages 11 to 17, from an apartment outfitted with padlocks and bars.

But even those who don't physically imprison their victims keep them mentally shackled through violence, either threatened or real. Meanwhile, victims are completely cut off from friends, family, and finances. Many develop "Stockholm Syndrome"-or "traumatic bonding"-identifying and even sympathizing with the trafficker.

That's where the road got tough for Christi Hein. For two years, she worked case after case, rescuing young girls from abusive pimps, but with end results that drove her to distraction: Pimps got off with little or no jail time. And, brainwashed or terrified of retribution, the girls almost always ran back to their abusers.

The only safe place to put them was in jail. "We tried so many different times to come up with some other kind of facility where girls could get help and counseling, but everything kept falling through," Hein said. "I had pretty much given up."

As Hein and her fellow vice squad officers struggled with how best to serve justice, Mark Connelly, pastor of Superstition Springs Community Church, struggled with how his church could advance biblical justice. As church leaders explored areas of need, they became involved with Homes of Hope, a program in Fiji that provides housing, food, medical care, vocational training, and Christian discipleship for girls rescued from sex traffickers. Superstition Springs invited other Phoenix-area churches to form Vision Abolition, a 501(c)3 that battles child sex-trafficking.

In late 2005, former Phoenix vice mayor Peggy Bilsten got a telephone call from the city's vice squad. "Peggy," the officer said, "there's a crime scene you're going to want to see."

Bilsten, who is a Christian, now serves as Humanitarian Ambassador for the city of Phoenix and the state of Arizona. But for 14 years, she served on the Phoenix City Council. The police came to know her as someone who cared passionately about crime victims.

The crime scene was the aftermath of Jade's captivity. Bilsten was shocked to see the dog crate, the rape room, and various instruments used to torture the girl. After vice officers briefed Bilsten on Phoenix's child prostitution problem, she researched the topic further on her own. Then she held a press conference. Local talk shows and print media ran with the story, the image of the dog crate case exploding the myth of the rebellious teen streetwalker and showing that most child prostitutes aren't entrepreneurs, but slaves.

In 2006, Bilsten asked the mayor to form a task force of prosecutors, law enforcement officers, counselors, and other professionals who could address various aspects of the problem. A review of existing vice laws showed a "complete defense" for pimps and johns with regard to child prostitution: All either had to do was say he didn't know a minor girl's true age.

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