July 24, 1995

Gerry Bellet

Washington State

US law gives parents power:
Bill helps pull child
prostitutes off the street

It took the murder of a 13-year-old prostitute to force legislators in Washington State to rethink their attitudes towards parents' and children's rights.

The Becca Bill -- named in memory of Rebecca Hedman whose battered body was found on the banks of the Spokane River two years ago -- became law on the weekend.

It is the kind of legislation parents of child prostitutes want enacted in B.C.

"I've already sent copies of the bill to [Social Services Minister] Joy McPhail and [Justice Minister] Allan Rock," said Diane Sowden, a Coquitlam mother and an anti-prostitution activist.

"We need to be able to gain some control over our children who are destroying themselves on the street," she said.

A recent VANCOUVER SUN story detailed how the authorities are powerless to prevent child prostitution because the Family and Child Services Act has no authority to detain a child against their will. The Becca Bill allows parents to seek court orders directing police to arrest runaways and take them to residential centres where they can be held for up to five days.

At the centres their mental health and any drug or alcohol dependencies will be evaluated.

The bill also allows parents to commit children under the age of 18 to drug- or alcohol-treatment centres without the child's permission.

Rebecca Hedman was bludgeoned to death by John William Medlock, a Canadian, who picked her up in downtown Spokane on Oct. 17, 1993. He took her to a motel and paid her $50 and engaged in intercourse. An autopsy showed the child had suffered vaginal damage and investigators believe she was crying after the encounter. Medlock, a Spokane resident, told police he was dissatisfied with the child's services and had taken a baseball bat from beneath the bed and struck her six times on the head. He took back his money, stripped her and later rolled her naked body down the river bank. The child had been a prostitute from age 12 and was a cocaine addict.

Following the murder, Medlock fled to Canada to live with his mother and two months later was arrested by Port Moody police, returned to the U.S. for trial, convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 26 years in prison.

When the details of the child's life and death began seeping out -- and with it the willingness and inability of the authorities to prevent her from prostituting herself and absolute impotence of her parents to prevent her -- it shocked a public who never imagined such power of self destruction had been delivered into the hands of a child.

Dennis Hedman, her father condemned the social system that would permit a child such choices and his words didn't fall on deaf ears. Parents of street children formed groups and within a year the Runaway Alliance, as they were called, was pounding on the doors of the state legislature in Olympia demanding changes.

Sowden is part of a group of northeast-sector parents who are forming the Children of the Street Society, a non-profit group dedicated to preventing child prostitution and helping families of child prostitutes.

PROSTITUTION: Activist faults new U.S.
bill due to implementation with fewer funds

She says they know they can never stop prostitution but they want it to be impossible for the authorities to wring their hands in frustration and allow a child of 13 to stand on a corner of Franklin or Hastings having her sexual potency assessed by a steady stream of drive-by johns.

"We want some help. We can't let 13-year olds choose a lifestyle that will kill them," she said.

In Bellingham, Wash., Kristi Vanselow, who runs the local Runaway Alliance, said the state law that came into effect Sunday is unlikely to make an immediate difference.

"Its underfunded. The bill was supposed to have $20 million attached to it but it only got $8 million. There is no new residential centres ready for these children," she said.

"Where it will make a difference is for parents like me who won't take no for an answer when it comes to getting them evaluated for drug and alcohol problems," she said.

Vanselow said she will continue to push the politicians to provide money and resources until the system becomes effective. She says that from what she's heard about Vancouver the problem is much worse than anything in Washington State.

It was an informal tally by the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society last year that brought to light the fact that more than 1,000 children were prostituting themselves on Vancouver's streets. And the number only tells Mo Townsley -- who runs the organization's detox unit -- that society's losing its capacity to recognize a moral evil.

"I've met people socially who think it's acceptable for young women to be involved in the sex trade.

"I've heard guys say such things as 'I wouldn't really care if my daughter was a stripper' or 'if she did that (prostitute herself) I think I could handle it.'

"This would be unheard of 20 years ago," said Townley. "But today some parents think being a stripper in a bar is acceptable employment and their daughter being a prostitute is something they could cope with."

Anne Dion, a Coquitlam mother whose continuing attempts to save her daughter from prostitution were the basis of a TV movie, has seen a child she said "looked about eight-years old" being openly sold on the street by two adults.

It was noon on March 30 this year and Dion was at the Mac's Milk store on Dundas and Lakewood in East Vancouver when a car pulled up and a child stepped out.

"I guess the guy was driving her back after having sex with her. She was obviously on drugs because of the way she was shaking. There were two adults, a man and a woman at the phone box on the corner, and the woman was screaming at her 'you little bitch just get back in there and make some more f--g money.'

"They made her get into another trick car -- a white kind of van like an ice-cream van -- with this old guy and off they went," said Dion.

Dion followed the van until she came upon a police car.

"I told the cop what happened and he went screaming off after them. It was the most sickening thing I've ever seen."

While the child prostitute descends into its own hell her parents will experience the sort of anguish that would make news of her death seem almost a relief.

Dion once asked a roomful of people whose children were prostitutes what would be easier -- dealing each day with the agony of knowing what they were doing and what could happen to them, or being told they'd been killed in an accident?

"All these hands shot up and they said they would find it easier to deal with their children's death because at least they could mourn, but while they are living like this there's no mourning, only grief."

Grief is hardly a word to describe the emotional range traversed by the families of the following children. Both come from middle-class, suburban families and were recruited into prostitution while at school. Both are know to the Vancouver vice intelligence unit. The first girl is 15-years old and is almost six months pregnant. She has been a prostitute since 13 despite valiant efforts by her adoptive parents to prevent it.

Her mother, hoping that through necessity this pregnancy would bring her off the street, was stunned to learn she was still prostituting herself.

When told this by a social worker, she protested -- how could it be, a girl clearly pregnant still working?

The answer is devastating -- her daughter was now a specialty item in the sex trade -- there was a market for pregnant teenagers. In her latest visit to the social services this child admitted to her social worker that she was free-basing cocaine and living with a known pimp.

Her mother says she was given bus fare and shown out of the office -- so much for the Family and Child Services Act and a social system which is supposed to protect children from harm.

The second child's story is the very anatomy of a nightmare.

She attended a Coquitlam school where she was first approached by teenage procurers -- boys about three years older -- who attempted to prey upon her sexually. Her parents sent her to an alternative school in Maple Ridge to escape their influence.

"These alternative schools are pretty toxic," said her father. "They concentrate all the kids who have problems in one place and it only makes it easier for procurers to prey on them."

While there she got into the party circuit and was mixing with older people, all of them using cocaine, and before long she started running up a cocaine debt.

She was encouraged to take part in pornographic movies as a way to settle the debt. The girl was videotaped committing lesbian acts and her father said these provided the procurers with a means of blackmail.

"She was told that if she didn't become involved in prostitution copies of the videos would be sent to her family and be shown around town.

"I guess she realized she'd bitten off more than she could chew and attempted to kill herself. She was only 14."

His child was placed in the psychiatric ward of Maple Ridge Hospital and because of her age a social worker arrived.

"We were desperate for help and wanted social services to do something, but the worker said she wouldn't intervene because our child was not being physically or sexually abused at home." The father was stunned.

"The fact that we were good parents worked against us. I said 'look lady are you telling me that if I go into that hospital and fondle her or slap her around then you'll provide her with services -- But if I don't, you won't?"

Even today the exasperation is vivid.

"I mean, how insane can a system be?"

He believed his daughter was being kept in a secure ward but after three days "these Maple Ridge 'scum-slash-pornographers'; went in and removed her by force."

"They went in and took her, and no one from the hospital told us until two or three days later when we were phoned and told she'd gone.

"We didn't see her for a year but we found that after she'd been taken away she'd been sold to a pimp in Burnaby for $6,000. He later sold her to another one in Vancouver for $12,000." The family heard nothing for a year then his daughter phoned and said she was sick. They met downtown and he could hardly recognize her. She'd lost about 40 pounds and was obviously ill. He attempted to get treatment from two Vancouver hospitals but was turned away. One told him they didn't deal "with children like that."

Shaughnessy Hospital eventually treated her for several forms of venereal disease. Her father, meanwhile, tried to find help. "There was no help for her, nowhere for her to go, no place for treatment, no programs. Nothing."

He offered to bring her home but she shook her head. "How can a 16-year-old prostitute with a full-blown heroin habit just go home? What can she do there? Her drug supply is downtown -- not at my house -- and the only way she can get a fix is through prostitution.

"I had to drop her off on the same street corner I'd found her."

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Created: January 15, 1996
Last modified: July 3, 1997

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