When Michelle Guymon first heard the term “sex trafficking,” she figured it was not her problem. After all, as a probation officer in Los Angeles County, she had no control over what happened in faraway places like Thailand or Belarus.
“The only thing I knew about trafficking was that it was a bad thing happening to kids in other countries,” she said. “I had heard about them on TV.”
But to her dismay, she quickly learned that these girls were here in Los Angeles. Even worse, she had been dealing with them for years as a probation officer and therapist helping kids through childhood traumas and their arrests as prostitutes. Like many in law enforcement, she just didn’t comprehend it.
“I realized that these were the girls that I had always worked with. They were being exploited sexually rather than being a teenage prostitute,” she said. “I think looking back on it, that realization was a hard moment. There were things I could have done better to move them forward and help them along that path, if I had known better. Now that I know better, we have to do better.”
And do better, she has. As the head of the Probation Department’s Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Project, Guymon is one of the key players in getting better services to the young victims as they enter the probation system. She was instrumental in applying for a state grant that allowed the county to begin a separate court program that diverts young girls away from incarceration and into programs and therapy that might help them get out of the life of commercial sexual exploitation. She has also established a pilot program in South Los Angeles—the epicenter of the sex trafficking problem—to create a safety net with a protocol for these girls.
Addressing the issue of human trafficking is a priority for Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas.
“I intend to do everything in my power to address this problem and help these young people leave conditions that absolutely no one should endure,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas.
There is much, however, that can be done. Through her work Guymon came to realize that before girls are trafficked they come into contact an average of 33 times with local authorities — whether it is through law enforcement agencies, social workers or health care workers. Both the officials coming into contact with the girls and the community at large need more education in order to help them. Most importantly, these girls must be seen as victims—not as criminals. The average age of girls coerced or forced into sex work is 12, and for many, the consequences are tragic. In just the last two months, one victim of sex trafficking was found dead in the sands of Newport Beach and another burned to death in South LA.
“Young girls go to the emergency room and to public health clinics—that is a huge point of contact,” she said. “If nurses and health practitioners knew and they asked, ‘wait a minute, why is this girl at 15 here by herself, why is she beat up?’ Then when she comes in contact with people, different questions will be asked.”
Ideally, Guymon would like the county to launch similar public awareness campaigns on sex trafficking as the domestic abuse and the Safe Surrender Don’t Abandon Your Baby campaigns. Also, the laws have to change. Some progress has been made with the passage of Proposition 35 ordering tougher sentencing laws against traffickers. However, girls are still treated like criminals, arrested for prostitution, sent through the criminal justice system and are punished more severely than the clients paying to have sex with them.
“These kids run a lot. So the more people are aware, the more we can make services available sooner,” she said. “Right now there is no countywide educational outreach.”
Growing up in Utah, she realized how sheltered her life had been when she moved to Los Angeles to work in a group home as the recreational director. Although she originally wanted to be a women’s college basketball coach, she found her true calling was working with at-risk kids. In 1989, she joined the probation department and has not looked back since.
As a ball player at the University of Utah, her father always told her she was better on offense than defense. Although she no longer plays basketball, she is still better at offense—especially when it comes to helping out these young girls. She has learned from her mistakes. She no longer asks them too many questions about their traumas; too many of the kids she saw began unraveling when she delved too deeply into their pain. She no longer believes these kids should be locked up to be protected. Instead, she could be seen as a lighthouse, where kids can seek her out when they are ready to find their way.
“You have to get to a place where you believe in their resilience and make a strong connection with these kids and love them through it,” she said. “No matter how many times they run, they can always reach back and we will always be there to support them. That is the best thing we can do.”