Our Children are Not for Sale: Hundreds March Against Sex Trafficking

Chants of “Our children are not for sale!” echoed loudly along a stretch of Long Beach Boulevard as nearly 400 residents, members of church organizations, community activists and elected officials marched from Compton to Lynwood, ignoring a light evening drizzle to bring attention to the plight of children who are sexually trafficked.

“Every day, children as young as 12 are bought and sold by adult men,” said Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who organized the march. “We will shine a light on this despicable behavior. You, who come here days, nights, weekends to buy these girls, we see you. And we will bring changes throughout Los Angeles County and the state of California.”

[raw]The march, which began at Palmer Avenue in Compton and ended at Helen Keller Elementary School in Lynwood, was attended by Assemblymember Holly Mitchell, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, Compton Mayor Aja Brown, attorney and social justice advocate Sandra Fluke and other local officials as well as community residents. Marchers followed a 1.6-mile route that is often the site where “johns” and “pimps” buy and sell young victims. Seedy motels and some businesses along the corridor also contribute to this activity.

Human sex trafficking is a $32 billion dollar business increasingly run by gangs. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that 100,000 children in the United States are sold for sex each year. In Los Angeles, it is estimated that as many as 3,000 children are trafficked.

Sheriff Baca pledged that his department would arrest the men who have sex with underage girls.

“These young girls are victims. Our strategy is not to put them in a prosecutorial place but to save them from those who should be prosecuted,” he said.

At the event, survivors moved the crowd by telling their stories and calling for action.

“As a child, I was bought and sold here on these streets,” said D’Lita Miller, who was kidnapped and raped at 11 and ultimately forced into the life of sexual exploitation. Miller, who is now an advocate for girls, with the organization Saving Innocence, urged the crowd to look at girls on the street with compassion and love.

“I stand here as a voice for the voiceless. These are not prostitutes. These are children of God. Stand up because they need you. All of you here are making a statement.”

Maria Suarez, with the National Council of Jewish Women, was purchased for $200 at the age of 15 and endured years of beatings and sexual exploitation, thanked the crowd.

“It is so beautiful to see everyone here,” she said. “We are human beings. We are not disposable. I encourage all of you to keep on fighting.”

Many residents said they turned out for the march after witnessing too many lewd acts committed by men with young victims in parked cars, or coming in and out of a row of seedy motels and the adjacent alleyways. Much of the activity occurs in front of the school or in the school parking lot when children are getting in and out of school.

The march even drew residents from Long Beach, who said that what happens on the stretch of boulevard in Compton and Lynwood can also affect their own community as well.

“We are neighbors,” said Carlos Valdez of the Coolidge Triangle community in Long Beach, noting that whenever law enforcement cracks down on the trafficking activity in Lynwood and Compton, it gets pushed into their neighborhood. “We know that this can be a cat and mouse game. So we like to get involved.”

Assemblymember Mitchell pledged to the crowd that her first pieces of legislation in January would attack the issue of sex trafficking in California.

“If you are here tonight, that means you intend to do something about this travesty happening in our state and our country,” she said. “Thank you for making a public commitment to do the right thing for our children.”

First 5 LA Allocates $1.5 Million to Expand Free Vision Care Services for Children

First 5 LA, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help children under the age of 5 live physically and emotionally healthy lives so they are ready to learn, allocated $1.5 million to ensure that the county’s neediest children receive free vision care services.

Acting on a motion by First 5 LA Commission Chair Mark Ridley-Thomas, the commission voted to expand their existing partnership with UCLA to facilitate a children’s vision care program and establish new partnerships with two leading nonprofit organizations that provide vision care services to children: Vision to Learn and the Junior Blind of America.

“This momentous decision ensures that children across Los Angeles County will receive vision care services that otherwise may not be afforded to them,” said Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas. “Equipping students with glasses to reach their full potential will not only help students perform optimally in the classroom; it is a significant tool to help them excel in life.”

The motion designates $1.2 million over four years to Vision to Learn and $300,000 over two years to Junior Blind of America. The funding is projected to serve at least 50,000 additional children over the next four years. The motion comes on the heels of the 15th Anniversary of the passage of Proposition 10, which was approved by California voters in 1998 and allocates funding for early childhood health and development programs for pregnant women and young children up to five years of age.

Vision to Learn delivers optical care to low income communities through a unique partnership with Los Angeles Unified School District by providing two mobile eye clinics on site. After an initial screening from LAUSD nurses, children are served in the mobile clinic by trained opticians and optometrists who offer free eyes exams and deliver free prescription glasses to students. Since 2012, this innovative mobile clinic has provided more than 12,500 children with free vision care.

“This support from First 5 LA will help better the lives of 12,000 kids, giving them a chance to succeed in school and in life.” said Austin Beutner, Founder and Chairman of Vision To Learn. He added, “Vision To Learn solves the problem of access to eye care and glasses in low income communities through Los Angeles by bringing the services directly to the kids at school.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Vision Health Initiative, vision disorders are the most prevalent disabling condition among children. Moreover, it is estimated that one out of every four children between the ages of 5 and 17 has a vision disorder that is often undiagnosed because the child has never received a comprehensive eye examination from an eye doctor.

The Junior Blind of America Vision Screening Program shares Vision to Learn’s successful track record in providing comprehensive screenings to preschool children throughout LA County since 2008.

“Thanks to this generous support from First 5 LA, Junior Blind will be able to provide thousands of low-income children with vision screening services,” says Dr. Jonathan Macy, longtime Junior Blind Board Member and ophthalmologist. “Together, Junior Blind and First 5 LA will help ensure healthier vision for some of our counties’ most vulnerable and underserved children.”

D’Lita Miller: From Victim to Advocate

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.”