Law enforcement officials and rights advocates are looking at new ways to combat child prostitution in the United States.  The effort is based on a simple premise: instead of treating the young girls involved in the illegal sex business as criminals, treat them as victims. 

"I always felt like a criminal," said Tanya, "I never felt like a victim at all.  Victims don't do time in jail, they work on the healing process."

Tanya, a former child prostitute, is among the more than 100,000 children and young women the FBI says are trafficked in the US yearly.

Earlier this year, U.S. police apprehended about 50 pimps and hundreds of women in a 29-state operation targeting sex trafficking.   Another 48 child prostitutes were also arrested and hauled off in police custody.  There is often no other option for helping these young women, according to Special Agent Patrick Fransen with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"We have nowhere to place them," said Fransen. "We have to criminalize them before we can help them."

The bust highlighted the challenge that law enforcement officials face when trying to rescue child prostitutes.  While they want to remove these young people from a dangerous situation, identifying them as criminals can create a stigma.

When a child has run away from home multiple times, there is a good chance they will end up on the street, forced into prostitution. And, many of them are the victims of past sexual abuse.

The Montgomery County police department, just outside of Washington, D.C. has made combating sex trafficking a major priority. 

Lieutenant Robert Bolesta oversees the unit responsible for the effort.  Whenever possible, his department pursues alternatives to arresting children who are victims of domestic sex trafficking.

"They are afforded certain rights and protections if they are a trafficking victim," said Lieutenant Robert Bolesta. "We will rescue them from the situation.  We will not charge those individuals with prostitution."

By identifying when larger criminal elements are at work, police can focus more on helping to rescue endangered girls.

He says his investigators have received special training, based on investigations from across the country, to recognize when someone is being forced into prostitution against their will.

"If an individual doesn't have possession of their legal documents," he said. "If a specific individual is always translating for them.  If they don't have the will to come and go as they want."

The fate of children being put up for sale on America's streets was the topic of a briefing on Capitol Hill, where rights advocates asked Congress for more resources to fight sex trafficking and help the young victims.

Ernie Allen heads the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"These kids are victims," said Ernie Allen. "This is 21st century slavery.  They lack the ability to walk away.  The pimps who use and discard them are the criminals, as are those who patronize them.  They need to be rescued, not arrested."

Many law enforcement officials and advocates for sex trafficking victims agree that the right strategy to stop the crime is to stop the demand; that means arresting the buyers who pay for sex.