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Documentary examines U.S. child sex trade

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Filmmaker Libby Spears wanted to make a documentary about the sexual exploitation of kids in Asia and Latin America, but that changed when she discovered that child sex trafficking is a big problem in the United States.

"Playground," which premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, looks at the child sex trade in the United States and discrepancies in laws and the perception of the exploitation of foreign and U.S. children.

"We have laws in this country that protect international victims of sex trafficking and don't have laws that protect domestic victims, but that's just starting to change," Spears told Reuters in a recent interview.

"Here (in the United States) when it's a 12-year-old girl they like to call it prostitution, they like to call her a prostitute, when that's not accurate," said Spears, who hopes her film will raise awareness and help push policy change. "There needs to be more resources for these kids long term."

The film quotes figures from the group End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT), which says U.S. citizens account for 25 percent of child sex tourists worldwide.

The international group also says 300,000 U.S. children are at risk of being forced into the sex trade.

Spears credits an interview with Ernie Allen, president and chief executive of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, for changing the direction of her film.

"People don't think it happens in this country. It may look in some cases different than it looks in other parts of the world, but vulnerable kids are targeted by procurers, by exploiters, by pimps, lured into the sex trade," Allen says in the documentary.

"There are not many American cities, where you won't be able to go out and find young kids on the streets engaging in the sex trade and virtually none of that is voluntary," he said. "It's organized crime."

Throughout the film Spears searches for a child named Michelle who was abused by foster parents and then abducted from Portland, Oregon when she was 11 years old. She was discovered soon after in Vancouver by police doing a so-called "baby stroll" and being paid by men for sex.

She was returned to foster care in the United States, but went missing again 2004 when she was 14 years old and it was never reported to authorities. Spears found her in 2008. Michelle had been working in the sex trade and had two young children. During filming she was arrested on drug charges.

"The fact that I found her was so miraculous," said Spears, who used Michelle's story as an example of the lack of help given to exploited children. "She's not well. She's five months pregnant and she's in an abusive situation."

Among the executive producers of the film are director Steven Soderbergh and actor George Clooney.

"We were just there to be supporters of it because we felt the subject matter was really compelling and important," Soderbergh told Reuters. "It's one of those things you can look and go, 'That's wrong and illegal.'"

Spears is hoping the film will be distributed in the university and school system. "We're just trying to get it in front of as many eyes as possible."

(Editing by Mark Egan and Cynthia Osterman)

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