Sex Trafficking in Los Angeles

Human trafficking survivor and advocate, Nola Brantley, educates Los Angeles County employees.

It is estimated that hundreds of girls as young as 12 are the victims of human trafficking every year in Los Angeles.

This is how it happens. Often, she is as young as 12. She doesn’t have a family. She longs for love and safety. She meets a man who sweet-talks her, promises her love, protection and money, buys her favorite brand of sneakers or splurges on an iPod. Except nothing is free. He will then coerce her with threats and violence and force to her make a quota of $500 to $1,000 a night by selling her body to men up to three times her age.

She is beaten and starved if she doesn’t make her quota – day after day of statutory rape. She doesn’t get to keep the money and has no refuge. Her best option is to get arrested.

That’s the world of child commercial sex trafficking, a growing problem in Los Angeles County.

“Selling children has become more profitable than drugs,” said Nola Brantley, co-founder and executive director of the Oakland-based advocacy group, Motivating Inspiring Supporting & Serving Sexually Exploited Youth or MISSSEY. “It’s an issue that impacts people all over the world. Here, children living in poverty, children in the foster care system are at a huge risk.”

Brantley has been visiting Los Angeles as part of an education and outreach effort to help elected officials, law enforcement, social workers, probation officers, judges, and others understand the horrors of child sex trafficking and what can be done.

“The trafficking, abuse and sexual exploitation of children is abhorrent and it must be stopped,” said Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas. “We must stop looking at these children as criminals and instead view them as victims. We must crack down on the pimps and the customers that are making this one of the greatest human rights problems of our time.”

Throughout Los Angeles County, significantly more girls are arrested for prostitution compared to the number of pimps and consumers. With the passage of Proposition 35 last year, which increases prison sentences and fines for human trafficking convictions and requires convicted human traffickers to register as sex offenders, the number of cases against pimps and traffickers has at least increased.

However, cases against consumers are rarely prosecuted as felonies and are normally sent to the city attorney’s office as misdemeanors. Officials are finding the profile of a consumer covers a broad spectrum ranging from blue collar workers up to men of influence.

The first step in combating this problem, said Brantley, a nationally recognized expert on the subject, is understanding that a sexually exploited and trafficked child should not be viewed as a prostitute.

“There is no such thing as a child or teen prostitute,” she said. “Prostitution requires consent. Right now, this is considered a victimless crime. We have to change that.”

In Los Angeles County, the Probation Department has largely led the effort to recognize when a child is being trafficked. Currently, there are several county programs including the Department of Children and Family Services’ Compton Teen Task Force, which helps identify at-risk youth, the district attorney’s diversion program and a collaborative court program to help sexually exploited teens re-enroll in school, get counseling, receive advocacy services from other survivors and shelter.

Sometimes, obvious signs are missed as a result of a lack of knowledge, said Michelle Guymon, Director of Los Angeles’ Probation Department’s sex trafficking project. For instance, in workshops Guymon now stresses the importance of looking for signs of trafficking even if the cases are related to weapons or drug charges because many times, those suspects are also pimps. One giveaway? Too many seemingly underage girls hanging around.

“Human trafficking is what happened to kids in other countries. When I realized the kids I had worked with my whole career were actually victims of exploitation I said “Wow, how did I miss that?’” said Guymon. “You think you have everything covered and then you ask yourself ‘how did I not see what was staring at me right in the face?’”

They are also learning how pimps terrorize and control their victims. One chilling tactic that Brantley has noticed in Los Angeles is the tattooing of girls on the face so that if they escape, they are easily identifiable on the street and retrieved by their pimps. It is difficult to prosecute pimps and the consumers in part because the girls are scared of the consequences or are sometimes afflicted by Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon where captives identify with their abuser.

Another tactic used by pimps is called “guerrilla pimping,” where an unsuspecting girl is snatched off the street, raped, drugged and then enslaved into sex trafficking.

The good news, however, is that Brantley and other advocates rely on survivors of sex trafficking as mentors and counselors to help victims out of the life. In Los Angeles, more than 60 girls are actively involved in survivor leadership programs. Being a survivor of sex trafficking herself, Brantley understands the power of turning her life around and then helping others heal.

“There is a lot of love out there. I love mentoring other survivors. It is a community we have developed,” she said. “It has been great and very rewarding.”

Homeless Count 2013

As the stars began to shine in the night sky Thursday, more than two dozen volunteers gathered around the table in the education room at Holman United Methodist Church in the West Adams neighborhood, eagerly waiting to hit the streets.

“We’re gonna get this done tonight, are we not?” said their site trainer Carolyn Fowler.

“Yes!” the group cheered.

The group was among the 5,000 volunteers who turned out in late January to participate in the 2013 Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s (LAHSA) biennial homeless count , which seeks to locate and count the men, women and children living in cars and tents, makeshift shelters or sleeping out in the open. During the four-day event, volunteers fanned out throughout Los Angeles County and covered more than 1,400 census tracts, making it the largest turnout ever in the biennial count’s fifth year history. Volunteers, who received training on how to identify homeless people and count them correctly without making assumptions about people who happened to be loitering or near makeshift shelter, were given pre-determined census tracts to canvass.

The count is essential for understanding and tracking how many people are living on the streets and what kind of services and housing will best help them in secure permanent shelter. In 2011, the effort revealed that more than 51,000 people in the county are homeless. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort by cities and the county to improve homeless services and become pro-active in getting people the help they need, said G. Michael Arnold, executive director of LAHSA.

“Local cities are really stepping up and trying to understand homelessness in their communities,” said Arnold. “They are trying to find solutions.”

Individuals, like Holman Senior Pastor, Rev. Kelvin Sauls, are also stepping up.

“We want to be with our brothers and sisters who happen to be homeless,” he said before the group began the count.

Ashley Wilson, who is making a documentary about the homeless, noted that homelessness is not a faraway concept in our society.
“It can happen to anyone,” she said.

Indeed, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas , who joined the group of volunteers in West Adams and Leimert Park, reminded volunteers that being homeless does not diminish a person’s right to compassion and care, saying, “We share a common belief that the dignity and worth of all people matters. They are God’s people and created in his image and likeness.”

The volunteers then fanned out across South Los Angeles until midnight, blanketing the area, using flashlights and maps to try to find homeless people living in parks, cars, trailers or alleys. Remnants of belongings, blankets, clothing, tents, bottles of vodka or beer, often were giveaways for encampments that had been temporarily abandoned. But by midnight, dozens of homeless people would appear in Leimert Park seeking safety in numbers under the brightly lit park palms.

As the Supervisor stood in night shadows of Leimert Park, an area that had suffered a long period of neglect but was redesigned when he was on the Los Angeles City Council in the 1990s, he noted the poignancy of seeing former classmates from his school days at Manual Arts High School, on the streets. Drug and alcohol dependency, mental illness or misfortune such as a health crisis or losing a home, play a large role in the downward spiral of many who never expect to find themselves sleeping out of doors, he said, adding, “It doesn’t get more real than this . These are members of our family, friends and associates, black, brown, yellow, red and white. This is sobering.”

As he ventured out of the park, a man who identified himself as A.J. approached. A.J., it turned out had been chronically homeless years ago and someone who Jeanette Rowe, director of homeless services for LAHSA, had met on the streets 20 years ago in Venice and Santa Monica.

Rowe, who was accompanying the Supervisor on the count, spoke of the long effort to help A.J. transition to indoor living.
“I tried so hard to get him into a shelter,” she recalled. “He told me how much he hated it and I said, ‘OK, you go back there and tell me tomorrow how much you hate it.’ After 90 days in the shelter, it is really hard to return to the street. You’ve lost your step.”

Today, A.J. has an apartment and is living with government assistance. He was selling recorders in the park and seemed to be doing well.

“Years ago, he was a mess,” said Rowe. And then as he walked away, giving her his telephone number, she smiled. One less person was on the street. She had done her job. “It is very rewarding to see that.”