Ridley-Thomas, Knabe Call for Stronger Penalties for Adults Soliciting from Children

In an unprecedented step in the fight against sex trafficking, Los Angeles County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Don Knabe are calling on state legislators to dramatically stiffen penalties for adults convicted of soliciting sex from children. There have been numerous efforts over the past several years to combat the growing scourge of sex trafficking, but the majority of those efforts at the local and state level have focused either on the pimps who exploit the girls, or on providing treatment and help for the victims. While these efforts are to be applauded, there is a loophole that must be closed with regard to the so-called “Johns” – whose punishment should fit their crime, according to a board motion by Ridley-Thomas and Knabe.

Every day, children – primarily girls – as young as 10 years-old are being coerced and sold into prostitution in Los Angeles County and in counties throughout the state. According to experts in the field, the average life expectancy of these children once they enter the sex trade is seven years, due to the ravages of HIV/AIDS and the violence to which they are regularly subjected. The men who solicit sex from children, however, often are not arrested and prosecuted, and even when they are, typically face only a proverbial slap on the wrist. But this is not consensual sex; it is child molestation and rape, and the punishment should fit the crime. Only the state legislature, however, can mandate criminal penalties.

The motion, to be presented Tuesday, authored by Supervisors Ridley-Thomas and Knabe, asks lawmakers to amend the state penal code to make paying for sex a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, if the victim is a minor. It also requires the “customers” to register as sex offenders, and increases the fine from $1,000 to $10,000. And it calls on law enforcement to refocus its priorities and actively arrest and prosecute these predators.

“I am proud of the work Los Angeles County has done over the past 18 months to bring awareness to the horrific crime of child sex trafficking,” said Knabe. “However, in addition to doing all we can to protect the young victims, we must aggressively penalize those who solicit girls for sex and ensure they are the ones prosecuted, not the victims.”

In addition, the motion calls on the board to support federal legislation currently under consideration that would strengthen federal laws against child sex trafficking.

Chairman Ridley-Thomas emphasized that all levels of government and law enforcement must work together to protect these children, mainly girls, from being exploited and terrorized. While children cannot legally consent to sex, they are often charged with a prostitution related offense and become enmeshed in the criminal justice system.

“This is not a victimless crime,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas. “These are children who are being exploited for the enjoyment of unscrupulous men, and it is our duty to protect them. To that end, California should step up and create the toughest laws in the nation that will either deter or, if necessary, punish those who purchase children.”

Statement on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

Fifty years ago, Americans from around the nation made the journey by bus, train and airplane to join Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the nation’s capital, marching to demand that the United States of America live up to the ideals of equality for all expressed in its founding documents.

In a speech that electrified the nation, Dr. King, reminded the nation that 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln, freedom was still elusive for millions of citizens. African Americans faced police brutality and unequal access to employment. Discriminatory voting laws relegated African-Americans and other minorities to second class citizenship status.

We have made great strides in making Dr. King’s dream a reality of judging a man by his character and not by his skin color. Change indeed has come to America. Twice, the nation affirmed the new reality of possibilities by electing Barack Obama to the presidency.

Yet as we reflect on the progress we have made as a nation on this momentous anniversary, there is undeniably still much more work to be done.

Every day, African-American young men are disproportionately victims of gun violence and in many cases racial profiling. The unjust shooting of 17-year-old Travyon Martin and the legal exoneration of his killer is but one example. Women, for example, still are not paid on par with men and we still struggle with extending the protections of civil rights to all citizens.

Our work is not done. This past June, the Supreme Court of the United States rolled back the clock in a majority decision that sabotaged the Voting Rights Act, eliminating a mechanism that safeguarded the enfranchisement of millions of African Americans.

So, as we honor the legacy of Dr. King, let us recommit ourselves not just to his dream for America, but to his principles of nonviolence and to his example, standing against injustice individually and collectively, rolling up our sleeves and going to work.

With hope,

Freedom Schools End Summer With Festive Finale

Tamala Mercadel, 12, of Los Angeles has spent the last three summers at the Community Coalition Freedom School at the Crenshaw Christian Center, a summer literacy enrichment program. Before her participation in the program, she considered herself a slow reader and was embarrassed to read aloud. But thanks to her teachers (called Freedom School Servant Leaders), Tamala not only enjoys reading action packed books, now she is determined to go to college.

“Freedom School is like my second family,” said Tamala. “The teachers are like brothers to me. When I’m down they will sit down with me and talk with me.”

Tamala was one of 450 young people, ages 5 to 18, from six Freedom School sites in the Second District who gathered at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in Los Angeles recently to sing, chant and celebrate the end of the program in the Second Supervisorial District.

Scholars spent the afternoon participating in a variety of fun-filled activities — trying on fire-fighting gear, climbing aboard a fire engine, learning earthquake safety and selecting books to take home from the Los Angeles County Public Library’s Urban Outreach Bookmobile. They also got their faces painted, created kites, played the drums, watched a dance performance, participated in a yoga demonstration and made yogurt parfaits.

“We are here to help you be all that you can be,” said Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Ridley-Thomas, to the sea of young faces. The Supervisor has sponsored 12 Freedom School sites in the past four years. “We want each of you to have a healthy start, head start, fair start, safe start and moral start.”

For the past six weeks, Freedom Schools sites provided these young scholars with curriculum that is both challenging and entertaining, with activities that included reading, art, dance, music, field trips, athletics, and community service. Students began each morning with Harambee, a Swahili term that means “all pull together,” during which time the student scholars and their teachers chanted motivational songs, listened to guest readers, and closed with a moment of silence.

Cynthia Robinson, 41, of Los Angeles is the mother of returning Read Lead Freedom School scholars, one of six Freedom School sites in the Second District and 7-year-old triplets Anthony, Tyler, and Mariah. Robinson is grateful that the Freedom School program not only is free, but that it provides her kids with a rigorous curriculum that gets them excited about reading books.

“Freedom Schools has really boosted my kids’ confidence,” said Robinson. “It is different than any other day camp. “They are called scholars and they are treated like scholars and their servant leader interns expect the most from them and give them a sense of pride in themselves and their own ideas.”

The CDF Freedom Schools Program is rooted in the work of the Civil Rights movement. During the summer of 1964, college-age youths operated Freedom Schools that provided an alternative to Mississippi’s underfunded and segregated school system. Modern Freedom Schools apply that same intergenerational approach to teaching and learning. College and graduate students are trained as “Servant Leader Interns,” who teach and motivate the children to develop positive attitudes about themselves and their abilities.

Moving toward completion: MLK Outpatient Center Gets Glassed In

  Wonderful progress continues to be made at the Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center Campus. Construction of the new MLK outpatient center is more than 80% complete, and this short video shows workers installing the very  last pane of glass onto the façade of this beautiful new facility. More than 150 skilled construction workers are hard at work on the new building, putting in complex electrical wiring, finishing rooms and landscaping the grounds on the site. When it opens next year, the center will  far surpass what is typically expected in a “clinic”. Through approximately 70 specialty clinics and an urgent care center that will operate seven days a week, 16 hours per day, the outpatient center will provide a full range of primary and specialty services. The outpatient clinics will specialize in pediatric, obstetric and genecology services, as well as ophthalmology, orthopedics, maxillofacial and even neurosurgery treatment. The center also will have clinics for special populations, including pediatric foster children and people with HIV/AIDS.   Also, an ambulatory surgery center will offer elective outpatient surgical procedures, rehabilitation services and a wide array of diagnostic services. Stay tuned for more updates!

Freedom School Program Liberates Kids in Probation Camp

Marquise, 16, never enjoyed going to school. The teen, angry and often in trouble, ultimately landed at one of the county’s juvenile probation camps. Life was not looking good for him. But then he was introduced to the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools program at Camp Afflerbaugh in La Verne, one of 18 juvenile probation camps operated by Los Angeles County. The five week academic enrichment program, which is based on the state curriculum and stresses literacy, builds self-esteem and a love of learning, was totally unfamiliar and at first Marquise was skeptical.

The change in mindset, however, came immediately. The youths in the camp, ages 13 to 17, suddenly found that learning could be fun. They began their day at 8 a.m. sharp with a 30-minute activity called Harambee, a Swahili word for pulling together, to sing and dance and read—something completely different from the somber, punitive atmosphere commonly found in a probation camp.

Within a few days, Marquise began to look forward to Harambee.

“It brings my spirit up,” he said, smiling widely.

Also, he began reading books—something he never enjoyed before. His favorite was Mexican White Boy, by Matt de la Peña about a young boy who is always an outsider and has never known his father. Through reading, Marquis realized he was not alone.

“That boy didn’t have a dad either,” he said. “Reading became something to do to keep me out of trouble.”

Since 1995, more than 100,000 children nationwide have enrolled in the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools and more than 14,000 college students and young adult staff have been trained to lead the groups. Usually held in mainstream schools, the five week pilot program at camps Fred C. Miller in Malibu and Afflerbaugh in LaVerne is the first of its kind in California. The philosophy is: “I Can and Must Make a Difference in My: Self, Family, Community, Country, and World, with Hope, Education and Action.”

The results speak for themselves.

Camp educators and probation officers started seeing fewer fights, fewer suspensions and more interest in the classroom. Attitude among the youths evolved from wary and angry to openness and with an increase in self-confidence.

“Before Freedom Schools, it was the Mexicans versus the blacks,” said David, 16. “But now it’s like it is all of us.”

Before the Freedom School program began, the youngsters were told not to speak above a whisper; now they were encouraged raise their voices in chants, songs and raps; before, the guards would treat them like adversaries; now they were embraced and treated with respect.

“The kids are enjoying it and like what it is bringing to them,” said Alberto Ramirez, Director of Residential Treatment Services Bureau at the camps. “Their relationship to the staff is moving in a positive direction. That benefits the kids and also the staff.”

Ramirez warned however, that much work still needed to be done. At any moment, a young man could say or do something that could trigger a fight. And keeping the kids on track will be a challenge when they are sent back out to the schools and neighborhoods where they first landed in trouble.

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has advocated for educational reforms at the camps and sponsored Freedom Schools in his district for the past four years, said the Freedom School’s emphasis on literacy and learning is one of the most effective ways to change a youngster’s life.

“The message of the Freedom Schools is so affirming and empowering that it was important to bring that to the probation camps,” he said. “The salvation for probation is education. The best opportunity for these youngsters to turn their lives around is to educate them.”

The hope is to continue with the Freedom School program—or at least Harambee—year-round in the camps. The Freedom School model complements the Road to Success Academies implemented by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which emphasize interactive learning and positive feedback rather than punitive measures to educate youths at the county’s probation camps.

Other projects to increase educational opportunities for young people in camps are in the works. They include the Camp Kilpatrick Replacement Project, which seeks to replace that juvenile probation camp with a more rehabilitative, evidence-based approach to juvenile incarceration similar to programs developed in Missouri. In addition, there are efforts underway to find effective ways for youths to receive support and guidance after they are released from camps.

For now, these five weeks at Camp Afflerbaugh’s Freedom School have given some of the young men a second chance.

“I used to get Ds and Fs in school,” said David, 16. “Now I want my family to know I get Bs and Cs. And I want to go to college and become a counselor so I can help other kids learn how to read.