D’Lita Miller stared at a picture of herself at 11, where she smiles proudly, wearing a white dress and pearls as her teacher hugged her on her 6th grade graduation. She was a straight-A student, president of her class, attended church and was all around a good kid.
But only a few months later, her life crumbled around her.
In the fall of that year, she was kidnapped and held against her will for three days by a neighbor and other men who repeatedly raped her. When she was finally able to escape, she ran out of the house, barefoot, to a neighbor who took her to the hospital.
She was never the same.
Miller, now an advocate for young girls who are sexually trafficked, knows “the life” all too well. After the rapes, feeling worthless and lost, she became prey for older men, and ultimately became one of the hundreds of teenage girls that are trapped in a life of prostitution, selling her body to men three times her age.
Now an adult who has been out of the life for 13 years, she works to rescue young victims from the streets, leading them out one at a time.
“I was a victim, then a survivor. Now I am a leader,” she said. “When children are in that situation, they want to be able to relate to someone. I can’t express more strongly, how important it is to have survivor advocates.”
In Los Angeles County, an estimated 3,000 children are trafficked for sex. Some are runaways, others are in the foster care system, others are duped into the trade by pimps and traffickers who pretend to be boyfriends – many have been assaulted and raped early in life, as was D’Lita, and believe they deserve nothing better.
It is an increasingly sophisticated and lucrative trade, run by gangs as part of a criminal enterprise and one that is becoming more profitable than drug dealing.
While much of the trafficking happens online, a great deal of the action occurs along popular “tracks” such as Long Beach Boulevard and Figueroa Street. Along these stretches, in alleys and run-down motels, men pay to have sex with girls as young as 12. On any given weekend night, as many as 1,000 cars line up along Long Beach Boulevard with men waiting to buy sex with girls, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
Traffickers are also on site. These gang members and pimps are increasingly violent and have taken to tattooing their victims on the face, neck or legs to further humiliate them and discourage them from running away.
In trainings and presentations she makes throughout the state, Miller helps those working to end sex trafficking — family members, foster parents, case workers, social workers and medical professionals — to recognize the signs of trafficking.
These include: youth who are interested in, or are in relationships with older men; inexplicable tattoos, children who seem depressed, fearful, full of tension or ones who suddenly have access to newfound, unaffordable luxuries such as expensive clothing or jewelry.
Many victims blame themselves for their situation and do not recognize that they are being exploited, she said.
“A young lady I was talking with didn’t consider herself a victim. She wanted to go back to the life. And I said, ‘I’ve been where you are but I know this is not the path set for you.’ In their minds they believe this is their choice. And if they ran away, they believe it is their fault,” she said.
Furthermore, law enforcement traditionally has arrested the girls, charging them with prostitution even if they are minors and cannot legally consent. Because many of their buyers are not arrested, a deep mistrust of law enforcement is created.
“These children watch as the adult man is set free,” she said. “And they are thinking, ‘this is the man who just raped me.’”
Miller remembers those men. Her customers were husbands, fathers, grandfathers, lawyers, politicians and businessmen. They owned homes and were employed. She reflects back on those days and wishes she had received mental health help to deal with her trauma. She longs to address the customers one day in a training session. And what would she tell them? Simply this: “Stop buying girls.”