Photo by Sylvia Johnson
Supervisor Don Knabe, chairman, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, shows the prototype for his county’s transit signage to raise awareness of sex trafficking. Jessica M., a former victim, is to his right.
It’s hard to not grow up feeling “dirty” and “disgusting” when all you’ve known at home is abuse — emotional and physical — and sexual exploitation from the age of 3 to 12 years old.
That’s what happened to Jessica M., a Los Angeles County woman, now 29, who escaped the hell of human sex trafficking and became an advocate for girls trying to break free.
“Girls are abused at home and run to the streets desperate for love and attention or even sometimes for basic needs like shelter and food,” she said.
A new NACo survey report, The Problem of Human Sex Trafficking in America, tells in data the story of the “Jessicas” in counties across the United States. It found that sex trafficking involving children age 18 and younger is a growing problem, especially in large, urban counties such as L.A. — those with populations of 250,000 or more.
Eighty-six percent of larger counties said human sex trafficking is a “major” or “minor” problem. Forty-eight percent said it is a “major” problem.
Among smaller counties, those with populations of 50,000 to 249,999, half said it is a major or minor problem. Four hundred county sheriff’s offices and police departments were surveyed by telephone April 9–21.
In the past two years, 40 percent of large counties said sex trafficking has increased, while 51 percent said it has stayed the same. Counties with populations from 50,000 to 249,999 reported an 11 percent increase, while 77 percent said it had not changed.
“This is a difficult problem for many of our larger counties,” said Matt Chase, NACo executive director. “Counties like Los Angeles County and others are making a major effort to help the victims and deal with this problem. It is a community, economic and moral issue that has long-term effects on the children that are impacted by it.”
The Polaris Project, in a recent report — Human Trafficking Trends in the United States — found that from 2007 to 2012, cases of human trafficking were reported in all 50 states, based on victim calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline. More than 42 percent were about sex trafficking incidents; the traffickers were most often male U.S. citizens victimizing young adult or minor females.
L.A. County Board of Supervisors Chairman Don Knabe presented the results of the NACo survey at the National Press Club April 29, as he stood between Jessica and Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), who has sponsored legislation to stiffen penalties on human traffickers, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, H.R. 3530.
Poe said this is a federal issue because girls are moved across state lines or can be marketed on the Internet, and Jessica bore witness.
“This story is not unique to me or to Los Angeles County,” she said, “in fact, I was trafficked from Hollywood, California to Hollywood, Florida, in Arizona, Nevada, Texas and even right across from the White House…. In big cities and small towns and truck stops in between.”
Knabe said three years ago, he was briefed by two county probation department staffers about a growing issue occurring “right in our own backyard.” Girls as young as 12 years old were being bought and sold on the streets of Los Angeles County for sex, he said. And many were no strangers to human services and programs or the courts.
The survey found a link between sex trafficking and minor children who have been in the foster care system, group homes or involved in child-abuse cases. Sixty-two percent of large counties said there is a strong or somewhat strong link.
“We have certainly seen this in Los Angeles County,” Knabe said, “where last year over 80 percent of minors brought in on prostitution charges were already known to us, either through our foster care or juvenile justice systems. Clearly much more must be done to identify vulnerable minors and put prevention programs in place.”
Advocates say that while pimps and their clients are the groups most often arrested for sex trafficking — in the larger counties, 43 percent of sellers and 23 percent of purchasers respectively, according to the survey — far too many minor children (even though only 13 percent of those arrested) are being taken into custody.
“We have to change the mindset in this country,” Poe said, “to treat these victims as victims and not child prostitutes, and not just treat them as runaways and throwaways and stowaways.
“They are victims of crime. And we need to rescue them.”
A safe harbor law to prohibit prosecuting minors for prostitution also appears to be needed. Thirty-six percent of counties surveyed said their states do not have a law, and 38 percent said they do not know if there is a law.
The counties surveyed indicated that providing a safe shelter or transitional housing is needed to combat sex trafficking and help its child victims:
- To combat human sex trafficking, 62 percent of counties said that funding to provide a safe shelter where victims can receive comprehensive support and rehabilitation services is what is most needed.
- 48 percent said stiffer penalties for sellers are necessary.
- 33 percent said stiffer penalties for purchasers should be instituted.
With all the stigma sex-trafficked girls and women face, Jessica ended her remarks with a plea. “Please don’t call me or any of these young girls prostitutes; we already feel enough guilt and shame,” she said. “The danger of referring to exploited children as prostitutes gives a person the perception that consent was involved. Trust me, no 12 year old would ever, ever in life choose this particular type of life.”
Today, Jessica is a member of the L.A. County’s STAR Court team, assisting police when young children are rescued from the streets. She’s currently working on a degree in sociology and hopes to become a probation officer.
Bus cards, billboards, courts fight exploitation of children
Supervisor Don Knabe outlined at the news conference on April 29 the actions and programs that Los Angeles County, Calif. is taking to combat sex trafficking of children under the age of 18. The efforts began with raising awareness. Additional action has focused on creating a video, establishing a special court and pursuing legislative remedies. Here’s what has been done:
- More than two years ago, the county launched a campaign to post information, in English and Spanish, about sexually trafficked youth on all 3,000 Metro buses, rail cars, trains, and at stations, and on all Metrolink trains to raise awareness about the problem.
- The county recently launched a follow-up campaign focusing on the young victims. The county used a campaign that was created by Alameda County, Calif. and adapted for its use.
- The private sector has supported both campaigns. Clear Channel and Lamar Advertising have donated hundreds of billboards.
- A video, titled Manipulated, was created to tell the story of child sex trafficking through the eyes of a survivor and an undercover officer. The video has had over 62,000 hits on the county’s website and has been viewed in 171 countries.
- Using a federal grant, the county has trained more than 5,000 people, including judges, attorneys, community partners, county staff and other stakeholders who regularly come in contact with victims.
- The federal grant also enabled the county to create a Collaborative Court to focus specifically on the victims of child sex trafficking. Through the court, the county provides the victims with a response team to help them with their physical and mental health issues, and to support them with housing, education and training services.
- The county hosted two of the first-ever national Empowerment Conferences for the victims and at-risk girls to help them overcome their challenges, heal their wounds and look toward the future.
- The county developed a curriculum, “My Life, My Choice,” that is being used by probation agencies. The hope is to have it become part of the curriculum in select middle schools where exploitation is highest.
- Earlier this year, Knabe joined a bipartisan group of California state legislators to support a “War on Child Sex Trafficking” legislation package. This legislation will change the way sex buyers will be prosecuted and punished in California, including longer jail time and increased fines.