Is Your Teen for Sale Online?

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Sergeant Detective Kelley O'Connell

As commander of a four-member human-trafficking unit, Sergeant Detective Kelley O'Connell regards child sexual exploitation as a form of slavery. Whenever she gets a call from a Boston area police department about a girl involved in this activity, she meets her -- day or night -- to persuade her to quit selling herself and provide information on her pimp. "The pimps are vicious, and the johns are uncaring sex addicts," says O'Connell, 46. "But the victims need our sympathy."

A 22-year veteran of the Boston Police Department, O'Connell worked cases ranging from drive-by shootings to gangland turf wars before taking on child prostitution in 2005. Partnering with district police officers and federal Internet-crime specialists, O'Connell estimates she's rescued nearly 250 girls during the past two years through a combination of old-fashioned police work and 21st-century cyber tools.

O'Connell began this particular work after she noticed young girls being booked by police and wondered why. Many had been sexually exploited. She took her experience with gangs and human trafficking and put it to use in a new unit handling juvenile prostitution.

She discovered that the trail led to cyberspace: Whereas pimps were once adult men peddling grownup women, a new breed of younger, more violent gang members is selling girls online. These so called sneaker pimps -- named for their footwear -- look for girls whose profiles on social networking Web sites like MySpace indicate vulnerability.

"A lot of teen girls post risque photos and talk about being bored and unhappy," says O'Connell. "Some will respond to men who claim they want to take care of the girls and buy them nice things." After enticing the youngsters to leave home, the pimps then bully them into selling themselves, posting their photos in ads on Web sites that offer sex services.

Confronted with this new form of exploitation, O'Connell vowed to help these at-risk girls "before they show up online and then end up in my police station." She recalls one teen from a Boston suburb who met a 20-something man last year through MySpace and agreed to an in-person meeting. A romance developed. In spring 2006 he took the teenager to Florida and coerced her into becoming a street prostitute.

O'Connell, who took the call from the girl's parents about their runaway daughter, shared the report with police departments nationwide. Two days after the teen started turning tricks in Florida, police were able to arrest her on charges of prostitution. They nabbed the pimp in a later operation.

O'Connell and a local FBI agent arranged for the girl to enter a California residential facility of Children of the Night, the nonprofit run by Dr. Lee. The pimp is currently in jail awaiting trial.

"My greatest satisfaction is helping a kid turn her life around," O'Connell says. "These kids need to see that there's a world out there other than a pimp and a new pair of shoes."

The daughter of a policeman and wife of a paramedic, O'Connell has three children (ages 11, 14, and 17) of her own and frequently gives speeches to teenagers at schools and group homes on making smart choices and avoiding online trouble.

"I see myself as a rescuer," O'Connell says, "trying to make a difference in girls' lives."

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