As a licensed social worker, Candice Kimbell has heard many heartbreaking stories from children struggling with difficult issues. But when one child told her that she had been “recruited” at school, Kimbell was stumped. She discovered that the child had been tricked into prostitution by a friend, known as a “recruiter,” and then sexually exploited and sold by a pimp.
“I didn’t know what she meant,” said Kimbell, who is also a training coordinator for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. “I knew I needed to find out more.”
And so, Kimbell joined dozens of mental health professionals at a recent two-day training seminar on the commercial sexual exploitation of children hosted by the Department of Mental Health and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas at the Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Campus in Willowbrook. It is estimated that as many as 300,000 children are at risk of being exploited sexually and sold into prostitution in the United States. The average age of entry into the sex trade for these children is 12.
In 2013, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Don Knabe authored a motion to establish a county-wide approach to combat the trafficking of children in Los Angeles. Already, thousands of Los Angeles County employees have been trained and educated on the dangers of sex trafficking.
Social workers and mental health professionals from the Department of Mental Health began helping children in the county’s probation camps when it became apparent that there was a significant number of girls, ages 15-18, who had been incarcerated for prostitution related activities. Many of these girls were victims of abuse and neglect and they suffered from depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
This year, the Department of Mental Health plans to train and educate more than 600 professionals so they are able to detect signs of sexual exploitation or trafficking among children. By knowing the signs, some might even be able to prevent children who are at-risk of falling prey to predators.
Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, who has led efforts in the fight against child sex trafficking county-wide, said he hoped the two-day event would bring about more awareness and change.
“When we see young people being exploited and we do nothing, we diminish ourselves,” he said. “It is my hope you all leave here today with the inspiration and knowledge to transform the lives of these victims.”
Advising the professionals in the audience, Marvin Southard, director of the Department of Mental Health added, “Keep your mind active but your heart soft as you deal with these children who have faced horrible things.”
The two day seminar was led by Nola Brantley, a survivor and founder of Nola Brantley SPEAKS, an advocacy organization for trafficked children. Brantley, who has spoken nationally on the topic and has helped to train thousands of people in Los Angeles County, noted the importance of treating these children as victims, not as perpetrators of a crime.
“These children are not prostitutes,” she told the audience. “They are sexually exploited children. You can be a part of the restoration of a belief in humanity. We may not see ourselves as healers and we may not see our work as important. But it is. I know that what has been broken can be restored.”