atlantic city skyline

Atlantic City skyline. 

Vernon Ogrodnek

“Lisa” never thought she would be selling herself for money.

The Atlantic City High School senior had been rescued from her prostitute mother and drug-addicted father when she was just 5 years old.

Taking her from a troubled life in Atlantic City, the Toms River couple who adopted her were aware of their new daughter’s troubled past and worked hard to make the girl happy and feel part of a loving family.

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There were special dinner dates and regular manicures, family trips to places such as Disney World and Aruba.

At 16, nightmares began to haunt Lisa, dredging up the childhood sexual abuse she had suffered and making her want to hurt others the way she was hurting. Still, her parents included her in a trip to Mexico.

But a year later, after running away from three programs meant to help her, she found herself in an Atlantic City casino hotel room trying to explain to an older man that the sex her pimp had promised was not something she wanted to do.

Lisa's story is common in Atlantic City.

The FBI says Lisa and the other females in this story are the victims of sexual crimes and as such are not identified in criminal complaints. Accordingly, The Press is not identifying the women in this article with their actual names.

Caught somewhere between the casinos’ allure and impoverished neighborhoods lies a secret Atlantic City, where girls such as Lisa are used as a product for those who provide a different kind of entertainment. One in which sex with underage girls is a big business. Girls ages 12 and 13 — some from the southern New Jersey area, others from other states — have been found being sold for sex.

That business is spurred by demand, said Dawne Lomangino-DiMauro, co-chair of the Anti-Trafficking Task Force of Atlantic County, a county-formed board that provides help to human-trafficking victims.

People often connect “human trafficking” to foreign-born victims, said Alex Sinari, a founding member of ATTAC. But the majority are underage Americans, he said. Often, they are teenage girls forced into the life of selling their bodies mostly to benefit someone else.

Unlike drugs, “you can sell a person over and over and over again,” said Sinari, who does outreach for Atlantic City’s Covenant House. “Some are sold 30 times in a day. Raped 30 times a day.”

The most recent state Uniform Crime Report numbers show 16 juveniles were arrested for prostitution or commercialized vice in 2009, down 50 percent from the year before. Atlantic County had six in 2008 and five in 2009.

But those numbers are not complete: Girls sold into prostitution are considered victims, so they don’t appear in arrest statistics.

“That wasn’t even touching on the children who are brought in from another state, who are not street-level prostitutes,” Lomangino-DiMauro said, referring to minors brought across state lines who are then sold into sex uses by other means, such as online advertisements. “The numbers are just astounding when you think about it like that.”

In Atlantic City, there has been one pimp arrest since the beginning of this year and two outstanding cases from last year, police records show. Often, however, it is the women on the street, and not the pimp selling them, who are picked up and arrested.

Teen prostitution in Atlantic City is the subject of a study by John Jay College in New York, Lomangino-DiMauro said. Researchers interviewed both prostitutes and pimps and conducted a census of underage teenaged prostitutes working Atlantic City’s streets. College officials confirmed the study but said the report was not ready for publication.

Within 48 hours of a child taking to the street, she will be approached by a pimp or exploiter, Sinari said of his experience working with trafficking victims. “It’s just staggering how prevalent this problem is.”

How they get there varies.

“There are all different types,” Lomangino-DiMauro said. “Some are runaways who have been lured, some of them are involved in drugs, some are just on the street and have nowhere to go. Some of them have been kidnapped.”

The street isn’t even where police find the majority of the girls these days, Atlantic City police Sgt. Rodney Ruark said. Pacific Avenue has been replaced by websites such as Craigslist and Backpage.

“There are a few other small escort service websites out there,” Ruark said of online investigations. “We don’t see them walking around too much in the casinos.”

‘My first meltdown’

This wasn’t where Lisa saw herself three years earlier, when she was a successful athlete at Toms River High School South. But at 16, things changed when the demons that haunted her from her first five years of life started to show.

“That’s when I had my first meltdown,” Lisa said.

She was diagnosed as bipolar with borderline personality and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders.

Lisa’s adoptive mom put her in a hospital and almost lost her job because she wanted to be there for her daughter. About a year later, Lisa was put in her first program to get her some help. She ran away.

Two more programs — and two more runaways — later, she wound up at the Covenant House, a place for runaway teens that gets them the help they need. Lisa was getting counseling and taking her medication. She was at Atlantic City High School, determined to graduate on time. She even found a close friend in ‘Sienna,’ who also was bipolar. Unlike the kids back in Toms River who used Lisa to gain access to her backyard pool and the gifts she gave them, Sienna was a true friend.

Lisa was at the Covenant House one day when a girl she knew from school showed up. The girl said she was thinking of staying at the center and asked Lisa to help her move in. Lisa went to the girl’s house and was shown an expensive pair of shoes. The girl asked if Lisa wanted to make money in the casinos, but Lisa knew what that meant and said she wasn’t interested. Then, the other girls in the house wouldn’t let her leave, she said.

Eventually, she sneaked out a back window and got back to the Covenant House.

But Lisa soon got in trouble there, too. During an argument with another resident, she broke rules by making public a private matter. The two-day suspension left her with no place to turn. So, she returned to the girl’s home, saying she would work — but just for one night and just dancing.

A few hours later, she was inside a casino hotel room with her bra off, dancing for an older man. The 25-year-old woman acting as her pimp was there.

The next man expected more.

“I’ll make this quick and painless,” he told her.

But as the man tried to have sex with her, Lisa couldn’t hide her distress.

“I really don’t want to do this,” the teen said. Then she began to cry.

Difficulty finding help

Now 18, Lisa still doesn’t know why she didn’t say anything to the security guard she passed downstairs as she walked the casino floor. At 15, her adoptive mother had shown her a video on human trafficking. When the girl in the video passed by someone who could help her, Lisa wondered why the girl didn’t call out. Looking back on her own chance to ask for help, Lisa said she thinks she figured no one would believe her.

That was true when she told them about Sienna.

The day after Lisa worked in the casino, she was able to get her cell phone back from the woman she had worked for and quickly texted a friend and asked her to come get her. But when “Sienna” showed up, the focus for bringing in a new working girl fell on Sienna, an Atlantic City High School senior.

Lisa didn’t know Sienna ended up going with the woman. After getting picked up by someone else, Lisa got a call from Sienna saying she was with her boyfriend and was going to New York to work and shop.

“Don’t go,” Lisa told her. “There’s trouble there.”

It was the last Lisa heard from Sienna. Lisa called Sienna’s cell number daily for a month — getting no answer — and told anyone who would listen that her friend was in trouble.

“She was strong about graduating,” Lisa said. “I had a gut feeling that they had her. It was frustrating because I knew she was out there and no one wanted to hear me.”

But Sinari did, and so did the Covenant House’s lawyer.

In March, the FBI found Sienna working in a casino. She had never gone to New York. The woman she was working for made her tell Lisa that story, then took her phone, Lisa was told.

“I was so emotional when they found her,” she said. “I thought she was already dead, to be honest.”

Now, Sienna is out of the area and in counseling both for her emotional scars and her addiction that was worsened by the drugs she was forced to take while working.

The misconception, Sinari said, is that these girls — even those not at the age of consent — are willing participants. Even they sometimes give that idea.

“(Expletive) you, I’m here doing this because I want to,” Sinari often is greeted with when he first meets a prostituted teen. “That’s the survival instinct.”

“They are not child prostitutes,” Lomangino-DiMauro said. “They are prostituted children. They are commercially, sexually exploited children.”

The sex-charged youth culture doesn’t help, Sinari said.

Children, not products

“The word pimp has become a superlative in our society,” he said. “It’s a sordid world. You really have to be aware of what your kid is doing out there.”

One Pleasantville father recently learned that lesson.

“Jennifer” left home one Friday night in February, telling her father she was staying at a friend’s house. Hours later, Officer Daniel Corcoran found out what the 13-year-old girl was really doing when she propositioned the undercover Atlantic City police officer at a casino.

“It was very heartbreaking,” said Ruark, the Atlantic City police sergeant. “She seemed like she had a good head on her shoulders. She wasn’t a drug addict or anything.”

Her father had no idea where she was, Ruark said.

When Corcoran delivered the news — and the daughter back home — the father “was very upset ... he was crying,” Ruark said.

It is unclear why the girl was there or how she got involved.

“I wouldn’t think that’s something a 13-year-old would come up with on her own,” Ruark said.

But after all he’s seen, Sinari isn’t surprised by anything anymore.

“It just changes the way you look at things when you roll down the street,” he said during a recent car ride through Atlantic City.

He points to the sign advertising a spa: “When the front door is in an alley, you pretty much know there’s sex offered.”

And there are too many willing customers, Lomangino-DiMauro said.

“When there’s a demand, unfortunately, the traffickers consider (the girls) a product,” she said. “What society needs to remember is, these are children, not products. To stop the traffickers, you need to stop the demand.”

Getting the girls help is another hurdle.

“Some of the children go back to their traffickers because we don’t necessarily have the funding or the resources to get them off the street right away,” Lomangino-DiMauro said. “We do have a group of volunteers who try to assess and work to get them in the right places.”

Lisa, who once wanted to work in fashion, now sees her calling in law enforcement, helping those like herself.

“I didn’t like the law when I was younger because they would always take my biological parents away,” she said.

But she knows her mix of street smarts and luck has served her well, and she’s hoping to help others like her.

“I don’t know how my luck hasn’t run out yet,” she said.

But Sinari doesn’t think it’s luck that saved Lisa time and again.

He sees an inner strength in the girl who has a vulnerability in her dark eyes that belies the tough talk and matter-of-fact exterior. The same determination that helped authorities locate her friend.

“I think it’s a character thing,” Sinari said. “I’ve seen it go the other way. We’ve buried people who didn’t make that choice.”

Contact Lynda Cohen:


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