No longer will children and teens in the sex trade be arrested for prostitution – instead they will be treated as victims of abuse and trafficking under law enforcement guidelines soon to be implemented throughout Los Angeles County.
“There is no such thing as a child prostitute,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “By criminalizing children and teens who have been bought and sold like commodities, we risk further traumatizing them.”
Several police and sheriff’s stations already implement the First Responder Protocol, which makes it standard practice for law enforcement to collaborate with social workers, child welfare advocates and others whenever they encounter youths in the sex trade, some of whom are just 10 years old.
Supervisor Ridley-Thomas called for expanding the Protocol after a pilot program decreased arrests by 98 percent and rescued dozens of young people from their abusers and traffickers. In response to his motion, a two-year plan to adopt the Protocol countywide has been presented to the Board of Supervisors.
Under the Protocol, law enforcement must alert the county Departments of Children and Family Services (DCFS), Health, Mental Health and Probation, as well as child welfare advocates, who must respond within 90 minutes. They must also provide the youths with a comprehensive health evaluation and other specialized services within 72 hours.
“Every child who is a victim of sexual exploitation deserves the opportunity to be treated with dignity and respect, and to be recognized as a victim with immediate needs,” DCFS Senior Deputy Director Diane Iglesias said. “The Protocol has become a model for the nation in creating a coordinated response that recognizes the vulnerability of these victims, and our responsibility to do all we can to help them heal.”
She noted the Protocol allows specially trained social workers, child welfare advocates and healthcare providers to “engage victims, meet them where they are, and sometimes provide the most basic of human needs: food, a place to shower and sleep, or even a hug. By taking the time to stabilize them and surround them with caring adults, we are then in a better position to identify their needs.”
Under federal law, any individual younger than 18 who is induced to perform a sex act in exchange for anything of value is, by definition, a victim of sex trafficking. In spite of that, more than 1,000 child sex trafficking victims are arrested and charged with prostitution every year in the United States, even though many have experienced torture and abuse at the hands of pimps and johns.
“The real criminals are those who recruit, abuse and exploit these children and teens,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Victims who receive immediate and comprehensive assistance are more likely to help bring their traffickers to justice.”
Initially, the first-in-the-nation First Responder Protocol was piloted in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Compton and Century stations and the Long Beach Police Department. It has since expanded to the LASD Transit Bureau-LA Basin and the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th Area and Southeast Area stations. LASD’s Lancaster, Palmdale and Santa Clarita stations are next in line to adopt the Protocol, which should be fully implemented countywide by December 2017.