The first time Veronica Brunson was arrested she was 11 years old. The charge was prostitution. Before another year passed, the police, unaware of her real age, arrested her 11 more times.
At age 12, she was dead – killed in a mysterious plunge last July from the 10th floor of a shabby midtown hotel frequented by pimps.
“Even a babyfaced obvious kid who claims to be 18 can parade through the entire process – arrest, fingerprinting, arraignment – without anyone asking questions.” Officer Warren McGinniss. Six agencies, which were partially aware of her difficulties and were supposedly providing aid, now cite bureaucratic difficulties and communication breakdowns for their failure to act more effectively. The agencies are the Dept of Social Services, Board of Ed, Probation Dept, the Corporation Counsel’s Office, the police and the Brroklyn Center for Psychotherapy. “You can’t tell me appropriate intervention wouldn’t have saved her life,” said Bruce Ritter, Covenant House. “The juvenile-justice and child-welfare systems in the city are chaotic. Programs just don’t exist and everyone knows it.”
Prostitution by 13, 14 and 15 year-old posing as older persons is no longer rare. But an arrest for prostitution of an 11-year-old is believed by vice squad detectives to be the youngest recorded here in decades.
In July 1976, Veronica continued to leave home for two or three day periods (after meeting an 18 year old girl at Coney Island). Her mother said she didn’t report her as a missing person because she would occasionally telephone her.
But in September her mother told a school guidance counselor that Veronica had been missing for more than a month. The counselor urged her to contact police. She was officially reported missing on September 19th, after the new school term had begun. Her family said she had been missing for 6 weeks. The next day she was arrested on a prostitution charge. She had solicited a plainclothes officer on west 42nd Street. She gave the police her real age and identity and was released into her mother’s care pending action by the family court.
She returned to school (special school for slow learners) and teachers and counselors said they noticed significant changes in her. The year before she had dressed inconspicuously, almost shabbily. Now she used facial makeup and wore expensive-looking, color coordinated clothing, jewelry, high-heeled shoes and nylon stocking. “She seemed to have grown socially out of proportion with her age.” “I’d never seen a girl that young suddenly that street wise.” She told at least two of her teachers that pimps had tried to recruit her but that she had refused. Her absenteeism reached 121 of 180 school days.
She served 12 days in the Women’s House of Detention (Rikers) with adult prisoners.
Each agency said one of the others had rightful jurisdiction in the case. Therefore no action was taken by any child welfare official in May even thought the 12-year-old girl with a prostitution record was known to be missing.
On July 29th the girl went to room 1003 in the Markwell, a dingy hotel on 49th west of Broadway. At about 8 pm “guests” at the hotel heard a fading scream and the thud of a body hitting the pavement. Veronica Bunson, almost nude, lay unconscious on the sidewalk. Four days later she died at St. Claire’s Hospital.
The room ($15.50 a night) had been registered to a Mr and Mrs Post. The couple told police that the girl had been feeling ill and come to their room to rest. Even in death, Veronica’s case was botched by the city. It took police nine days to identify her. Her fingerprints taken in adult arrests led to fictitious names and addresses. Since no one under the age of 16 is fingerprinted, Family Court records were useless. Detectives traced her through prostitutes who knew her last name.
NYT Raab 10/3/77