Girl works toward recovery

The Baltimore Sun

With bright blue eyes and lush auburn waves, the teenage girl is both sullen and thoughtful as she describes the times her mother arranged for her to have sex with men for money - on the living room couch, in a car, in a neighbor's bathroom.

"'I know how you can make money. He's only a phone call away,'" her mother would tell her, she said in an interview with The Sun. "She was basically just prostituting me out so she could get money."

Living now in Texas with the grandmother who raised her in Anne Arundel County, the teenager has received outpatient treatment at psychiatric hospitals for depression, family members say.

Some hundreds of miles away in an Annapolis courtroom, her mother was convicted this week on a single count of prostitution, capping a saga that has broken a family and perhaps forever fractured the relationship between mother and daughter.

The mother and daughter sharply disagree on what happened.

Yesterday, the mother called The Sun a day after a judge gave her a five-year suspended sentence and probation. She strongly denied the abuse of her oldest daughter ever took place.

The 34-year-old Annapolis woman, whom the newspaper is not naming to protect the identity of the victim, says she has regained custody of her youngest daughter, 8, and hopes to have her 13-year-old daughter living with her again by September. Then, she hopes, she can move to Texas and reunite with her oldest daughter.

"It's been a nightmare for both of us," the mother said in a phone interview. "I think she took a small thing and made a big thing about it. ... I've cried. She's cried. I'm sorry."

The mother's prosecution is a rarity, said Sidney Ford, the executive director of You Are Never Alone, a support center in Southwest Baltimore that provides services to women involved in prostitution.

"It's very difficult sometimes to catch this at an early age, which fortunately happened in this case, but usually we hear about it much later," Ford said. "You have a situation where someone says, 'I love you, you're my daughter,' but is monstrously abusing that trust, so it's very confusing.

"This kind of thing thrives in isolation," Ford said. "There's this bond, and such a desire to please. It's such a primal kind of relationship, if there's any way to get back in the mother's good graces. ... "

Police learned of the abuse of the girl, who was 16, four months after it began. She was willing to testify against her mother at trial, prosecutors say. But she was spared when her mother was convicted in the plea agreement Thursday that, in addition to the five-year suspended prison sentence, included parenting classes, drug and alcohol counseling and a requirement to register as a sex offender for 10 years.

Her defense attorney, Thomas F. Ellis III, said the sentence would be "of great benefit to her."

In an interview, the mother admitted that she was drinking alcohol and taking marijuana and cocaine when, as a teenager, she became pregnant with her daughter. The young parents never married, but the teenage girl's father has remained involved in her life, paying child support and visiting her.

But relatives say the mother was not equipped to raise a child.

"She would leave [the baby] with baby sitters ... and then she would never go back and get [the baby]," the grandmother said in an interview. "Social services would call. Social services recognized that I had her. She was recognized as being a bad mother."

By the time the baby was 3, she was living with her maternal grandmother in a one-story rancher in Cape St. Claire, a short walk from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

Fran Klassen, a neighbor, remembers the young girl greeting the family when they first moved to their home next door in 1999.

"Just watching her grow up ... I remember when we moved in, she was just a little girl. She made us a little card and said, 'I'd like to be your friend.' ... I've always felt sorry for her that her mother was not there for her, not more involved."

The grandmother enrolled the girl in dance class, where she quickly flourished. A student at Broadneck High School, just as her mother had been years before, she soon began modeling and acting, appearing in small roles in films produced by Hollywood studios.

Despite her good looks and outgoing manner, the teen said she didn't have many friends at school.

"The school was kind of based on sports, if you weren't good at sports, you weren't good at anything," she said. "I was a dancer, so it was hard for me to keep up. It was kind of hard for me to connect with people. ... I was quiet and kind of goofy and immature, and I would stay to myself."

Her mother says she visited her daughter frequently: "I've been to every birthday party, every dance recital."

But the grandmother said the girl's mother visited only when she needed something - to borrow money or ask for food.

"Sometimes I would make a deal with her that if she would let [her daughter] spend the night, then I would take the two other girls," the grandmother said. "I had to bribe her to get her to come. ... She said she never bonded with her and she didn't have the same feelings for her. She never called her up and said, 'Hey, I'm taking [the two other daughters] to the movies.' ... She never did that."

The grandmother said the little girl would often ask why she didn't live with her mother. And she cried when she could not see her.

"I would just explain to her, 'It's not that she doesn't love you," the grandmother said. "It was just because she was too young. She couldn't afford it. I just made up all sorts of excuses."

Nine years ago, the mother, who later had two daughters with another man, settled in Bloomsbury Square, a public housing community in downtown Annapolis.

Neighbors there say they had complained to management about suspected drug dealing out of the apartment. The executive director of the Housing Authority of Annapolis, Eric C. Brown, said, "There were always rumors and innuendo. ... But there were no tangible and actionable items that we could address prior to this incident." Eviction proceedings began against the mother after her arrest.

"We can tell everybody, but what can we do?" said one neighbor, Leslie Bonilla. "The children are unfortunately the ones that suffer. They think she's a cool mom because they can do whatever they want."

The teenager, now 17, said the sex abuse began in February 2007, soon after she moved in with her mother.

She had a good life at her grandmother's home, but she always longed to be closer with her mother.

"Living with my grandmother, she really raised me good," the teen said. "She was really into making sure I had a lot of activities, and I was really focusing on my dance. She was almost sort of like a stage mom. ... When I got into my teenage years, I started to rebel a little."

The teen attended Annapolis High School for a short time, but then dropped out and started studying for her GED. She worked part time as a physical therapist's aide and at a grocery store.

A paternal aunt, Rebecca K. Rusteberg, said she saw the teen around the time she went to live with her mother when she was shopping in downtown Annapolis. It was jarring, the aunt said, because she had died her hair jet black.

"When I saw her with black hair, I knew there were some forces there," Rusteberg said. "When she told me she was living with her mom, a flag went up there. I gave her my phone number, and I said, 'If you need anything and if anything goes awry, call me.'"

In excruciating detail, charging papers document the teen's claims.

Several times, the teenager would have sex with two different men. A 59-year-old man would pay $150 to have sex with her. Another time it was a 24-year-old. Neither man has been charged with a crime.

Her mother told her, according to charging documents, 'He is old, but it will be $150 for no work.' She said it might be gross but it will only take about 10 minutes."

The girl told police: "My mom sleeps with him for money, too. She was having sex with him during the same time I was. She would say, 'Well, if you don't want to do it then I will have to.'"

She said her mother never said she "had to" but would pressure her by saying, 'You know I need this money for the family. We need it for the family for food. It's OK to do this.'"

The mother disputes this, saying, "I was not asking her for money. I was on social services, for one. I got food stamps for food. We were never out of food."

The grandmother, however, recalls her daughter searching her cupboards for food.

"She came and got food from me a lot, too," the grandmother said. "She would just come and say, 'We need food.' She would come shopping in my cupboard, in my refrigerator."

The teenager first learned about what her mother was doing when she overheard a phone conversation.

"She would leave at night and say she was going to wash dishes," the teenager recounted. "And I said, how come you said you were going to wash dishes, and I heard you on the phone saying, 'I'm going to wear something sexy.' She was like, 'Because I kind of go and have sex with him.' She said, 'I do it so we can have money and get food.' ... And that was an easy way to get money, and he would only last five minutes. 'You don't even have to look at him.'

"At first I was like, 'Eeww. No. No, that's gross.'

"She said, 'Think about it. I do it. All the girls do it. They just don't talk about it.' And I got to thinking about it and thought it would be an OK thing to do."

One day in early afternoon, her mom told her, a man named Paolo was coming to visit. He had seen her picture and said she was pretty.

"Are you sure you don't want to do it? He's supposed to come over in an hour," her mom asked, the girl said in an interview.

"She said, 'If anything happens, I'll be in the other room, and you can just scream ... '"

The teenager feared if she said no her mother would be angry, perhaps would throw her out.

"So I did it," the teen said. "It was the worst experience in my life."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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