Enforcing Rules on Motels to Prevent Human Trafficking

(Left to Right) Compton Mayor Aja Brown, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, District Attorney Jackie Lacey and Saving Innocence Executive Director Kim Biddle after testimony on March 3, 2015.

 

Motels that receive Los Angeles County vouchers to house homeless people must comply with new rules to prevent the trafficking of women and children on their premises.

Prompted by reports of sex trafficking and other crimes occurring at many motels around the county, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the motion, co-authored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Don Knabe, which will require motel owners to sign a contract stating that they will not participate in or allow any form of sex trafficking to take place in their facilities. In addition, they must hang a poster in a visible place with hotline information to report a possible human trafficking incident and for victims to receive help; allow law enforcement to check guest registries at-will and take a training session on sex trafficking provided by the County.

“There are few more disturbing issues than the buying and selling of children for sex. Unfortunately, much of this activity occurs in motels and hotels. If motels are going to receive a county voucher, they must fulfill their end of the contract,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “We simply cannot and will not turn a blind eye.”

Added Supervisor Knabe, “I encourage those hotel operators that receive County housing vouchers to join us in the fight against the trafficking of young girls. I look forward to continued discussions as to how we can reach this goal.”

Last year, Los Angeles County spent nearly $4 million in vouchers for 52 motels. District Attorney Jackie Lacey testified at the hearing and noted that her office has aggressively pursued cases against traffickers and has sought to help victims through a diversion program.

“This motion will assist law enforcement officials looking for kids who are being enslaved by sex traffickers,” she said. “Signs posted in lobbies may also encourage enslaved minors or good Samaritans and bystanders to call the hotline to seek help and rescue these kids.”

Compton Mayor Aja Brown also testified adding, “Gangs look at children as merchandise. It is imperative that we take a stand collectively… against modern day slavery.”

Kim Biddle, executive director of Saving Innocence, a non-profit that offers services to victims of trafficking, also testified. She said that 100 percent of the children in her care had been abused and held against their will at hotels or motels across the county.

“These hotels are truly being used to harbor trafficking victims… for intensive commercial exploitation and rape,” she said. “It should be a high priority to take a look at the accountability of these motels and hotels, especially if the county is in contract with them or awarding them any kind of funding and support.”

The Department of Public Social Services, which issues the vouchers, will compile a report and bring it back to the Board for review next month. It should include other housing options and ways of enforcing the contract in cooperation with law enforcement and victim service providers.

Helping Exploited Children Heal

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A seminar participant reacts to information on trafficked children.

As a licensed social worker, Candice Kimbell has heard many heartbreaking stories from children struggling with difficult issues. But when one child told her that she had been “recruited” at school, Kimbell was stumped. She discovered that the child had been tricked into prostitution by a friend, known as a “recruiter,” and then sexually exploited and sold by a pimp.

“I didn’t know what she meant,” said Kimbell, who is also a training coordinator for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. “I knew I needed to find out more.”

And so, Kimbell joined dozens of mental health professionals at a recent two-day training seminar on the commercial sexual exploitation of children hosted by the Department of Mental Health and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas at the Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Campus in Willowbrook. It is estimated that as many as 300,000 children are at risk of being exploited sexually and sold into prostitution in the United States. The average age of entry into the sex trade for these children is 12.

In 2013, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Don Knabe authored a motion to establish a county-wide approach to combat the trafficking of children in Los Angeles.  Already, thousands of Los Angeles County employees have been trained and educated on the dangers of sex trafficking.

Social workers and mental health professionals from the Department of Mental Health began helping children in the county’s probation camps when it became apparent that there was a significant number of girls, ages 15-18, who had been  incarcerated for prostitution related activities.  Many of these girls were victims of abuse and neglect and they suffered from depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

This year, the Department of Mental Health plans to train and educate more than 600 professionals so they are able to detect signs of sexual exploitation or trafficking among children. By knowing the signs, some might even be able to prevent  children who are at-risk of falling prey to predators.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, who has led efforts in the fight against child sex trafficking county-wide, said he hoped the two-day event would bring about more awareness and change.

“When we see young people being exploited and we do nothing, we diminish ourselves,” he said. “It is my hope you all leave here today with the inspiration and knowledge to transform the lives of these victims.”

Advising the professionals in the audience, Marvin Southard, director of the Department of Mental Health added, “Keep your mind active but your heart soft as you deal with these children who have faced horrible things.”

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Nola Brantley, CEO of Nola Brantley SPEAKS, an advocacy organization for trafficked youth.

The two day seminar was led by Nola Brantley, a survivor and founder of Nola Brantley SPEAKS, an advocacy organization for trafficked children. Brantley, who has spoken nationally on the topic and has helped to train thousands of people in Los Angeles County, noted the importance of treating these children as victims, not as perpetrators of a crime.

“These children are not prostitutes,” she told the audience. “They are sexually exploited children. You can be a part of the restoration of a belief in humanity. We may not see ourselves as healers and we may not see our work as important. But it is. I know that what has been broken can be restored.”

Board Moves forward on Child Protection Recommendations

78741043Moving forward with key recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission for Child Protection, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has approved pairing public health nurses with social workers to investigate every allegation of abuse for children under the age of two.

This move, based on a motion co-sponsored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, will help medical and child welfare professionals evaluate if a child is in danger of abuse or needs immediate medical attention. The Board also moved forward with the recommendation to make sure these children get referred to special medical clinics (called “hubs”) to get immediate health screenings if the public health nurse deems it medically necessary.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Medical Hub will be the first site to begin this partnership between social workers and public health nurses as part of the first phase of recommendations. The MLK Medical Hub will serve residents in Compton and the Vermont area of the DCFS regional offices. These enhancements will also make it possible to protect children and minimize disruption to families by having public health nurses evaluate children in their own homes.

In order to enhance all six medical hubs at county hospitals, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services will allocate $2-million to fund 14 new positions for doctors, nurses and one fellowship position. Annually, the Department of Children and Family Services estimates nearly 17,000 infants under the age of two in Los Angeles are at the greatest risk of being harmed.

“The time is now to move on the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations. The protection and well-being of children in our care should always be top priority,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who co-sponsored the motion with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. “All children in L.A. County deserve a fighting chance. They should be able to grow up healthy, free from abuse and in nurturing environments.”

Added Supervisor Kuehl, “I am very happy there are steps we have taken today reflecting the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission.”

The Blue Ribbon Commission for Child Protection was formed last year, based on a motion by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, to improve the safety and well-being of children in the child welfare system. The commission, comprised of experts in child welfare, social work and other areas, has issued two reports with recommendations for improving the system in Los Angeles County.

Supervisor Shows Support for New Federal Sex Trafficking Bill

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I would like to commend Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) for authoring the Combat Human Trafficking Act, which was introduced recently in the United States Senate. The bill seeks to penalize adults who buy sex from trafficking victims and strengthen victim’s rights. While many federal, state and local efforts have focused mainly on prosecuting the traffickers, it is time we start looking at the buyers who fuel this crime. After all, sex trafficking is a demand-driven industry.

The Combat Human Trafficking Act would ensure that federal law enforcement officials are properly trained to investigate and then prosecute these buyers. It also views those who are being trafficked for what they are: exploited women and children-not criminals.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that up to 83 percent of sex trafficking victims are American citizens, and the average victim is first trafficked between ages 12 and 14.There are few topics more disturbing than the buying and selling of children for sex. Unfortunately, our society is still misinformed about this issue. Many still refer to it as prostitution. But, this is modern day slavery and a multi-billion dollar industry driven by unscrupulous adults.

We must put an end to this notion that people—mostly women, girls and boys—are commodities to be bought and sold. This bill will help protect victims while punishing the adults who profit and derive enjoyment from this despicable trade.

Helping Former Inmates Re-Enter Society Successfully

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Helping former inmates re-enter society and avoid going back to jail can be challenging unless they receive support and services from agencies with proven track records.

And so, Los Angeles County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Don Knabe authored a plan to identify multi-year funding and develop a competitive bidding process for agencies that work with this population and have demonstrated success in keeping them from re-offending.

“Our county needs proven service providers to continue doing the work they do,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “The county benefits from their work and so we need to support them in a consistent and equitable way that takes into account the successful models they use. Reducing recidivism is important for public safety, it is cost effective and it is humane.”

Many individuals who have been incarcerated for violent, gang related crime are more likely to go back to jail upon their release because many have themselves been victims of violence in their communities and within their own families; most have spent time in the County’s foster care system and juvenile detention facilities; and they have significant substance abuse and mental health issues that make it difficult to transition well into a productive life.

However, there are promising service models out there that have had success in preventing recidivism. For example, a report from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) that studied the non-profit, gang intervention organization, Homeboy Industries, noted that Homeboy’s holistic approach to helping ex-offenders with job referrals, mental health counseling, housing options and skills training in an easy one-stop shop, has been largely successful. However, that model does not neatly fit into the requirements for government funding.

The Board of Supervisors has asked the Chief Executive’s office to work with the Department of Probation and County Counsel report back early next year with the best method to continually fund organizations that have proven to be successful.

Los Angeles County Supports City of LA in Supreme Court Case

Los Angeles County is backing the City of Los Angeles in its effort to crack down on motels and hotels that are magnets for criminal activity, including child sex trafficking.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors agreed to join in an amicus brief in support of the city in a case that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Los Angeles v Patel will determine if the Los Angeles Police Department can check motel registries on demand or penalize motel owners for refusing to cooperate without allowing the motel owner a chance contest the inspection before a judge. In December, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, ruled against the city, saying the ordinance violated the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches.

Law enforcement agencies throughout the county have witnessed the use of these motels to facilitate the sale of children for sex along prostitution tracks. At least 70 cities across the nation, including Atlanta, Denver, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, St. Louis, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle, have similar laws. Courts in other parts of the country have upheld similar laws.

With ordinances like this, traffickers, predators and drug dealers are less likely to use these motels if they know guest information can be made available to police on a moment’s notice. The prevalence of the internet is pushing the sale of commercial sex from the streets, behind the doors of motels and hotels.

The buying and selling of women and children for sex is a multi-billion industry increasingly run by gangs. These women and children are subjected to extremely violent and traumatic acts that too often result in death at a young age.

“While we recognize the need to respect the 4th amendment and we must keep a vigilant eye on potential abuse, these surprise guest-register inspections play an important role in cleaning up neighborhoods that have been living under the threat of violence, drug dealing and blight that many of these motels perpetuate,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who co-authored the motion with Supervisor Don Knabe. “We are in solidarity with the City of Los Angeles in their efforts to keep blight out of our communities.”

Star Housing Apartments Offers New Life on Skid Row

Jude Burns stood in awe among the hundreds of people who turned out recently to celebrate the opening of the Star Apartments, a 100 unit supportive housing site for the homeless. Once homeless, bereft after the death of his only son and severely disabled, Burns got a new lease on life when he was given a place to live at the Star Apartments.  Finding a home and stability gave him the will to live.

“It’s wonderful.  Everything is here- the kitchen, the patio, the counselors. I have a new refrigerator and bed.   I’ve been talking to a therapist here to help me with the loss of my son,” Burns said.  “Without this place I don’t know where I would be.  The people here are family.  We all came from different walks of life, have different stories and just fell on hard times.”

At the celebration, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose office invested $400,000 into the project, applauded the innovative and collaborative partnerships between private and public organizations to create Star Apartments, who frequently use emergency healthcare services such as hospitals and urgent carecenters.

“Everyone deserves to live in housing that it safe and affordable,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.  “Residents here at Star not only have a safe place to call home but they are also able to receive medical, social and recreational services on site.”

Located on 6th Street and Maple Avenue, along the border of Skid Row, the building is owned by the Skid Row Housing Trust and houses a Department of Health Services primary care clinic on the ground level that specializes in providing integrated health care services to homeless people and Star residents and the department’s Housing for Health offices with residential units above.  Philanthropic and financial organizations also funded the Star Apartments, the first supportive housing project in Los Angeles with 100 percent of its residents referred by the Department of Health Services.

Designed by notable architect Michael Maltzan, the six floor, 98,000- square-foot- LEED platinum certified building is made of prefabricated residences that were placed on top of a concrete superstructure. Formerly an elevated parking garage, the building includes track, a garden patio community kitchen, community garden and lounge for the tenants.

Robert Newman, Skid Row Housing Trust property supervisor of Star apartments hopes that Star will be a life changing experience for all its tenants.

“All of us have bumps in the road,” Newman said. “We want people to have a chance to get back on their feet and become productive citizens.”

New Plan to End Youth Homelessness Unveiled

More than 200 leaders, advocates, and youth packed Holman United Methodist Church in West Adams recently to discuss potential solutions for ending youth homelessness in South Los Angeles. This group, the South Los Angeles Homeless and Foster Youth Collaborative, took the lead on fostering community dialogue and organizing the breakfast to unveil the “Homeless No More Community Plan.”

According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, 8,713 homeless are under the age of 24 and 4,046 are between the ages of 18-24. South Los Angeles has the second highest concentration with 2,016 youth, representing 23 percent of the homeless youth population in Los Angeles County.

In response to the need for strategic interventions to lower these numbers, leaders, advocates, and youth formed the collaborative to find solutions. A year ago, after the collective’s first summit, the idea of a community plan was conceived to better understand the problems foster youth face and potential solutions to youth homelessness in South Los Angeles.

“No single organization is responsible for any major social problem, nor can any single organization cure it,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Latrina Wilcher, former foster youth & owner of Sweet Tri Pastries

Latrina Wilcher, 26, was born in South Los Angeles. She was at the Holman organizing breakfast to work as a caterer, and shared her story of homelessness. Wilcher said she was taken away from her mother when she was two-years-old, and after passing through a series of group and foster homes, she became homeless.

“When you turn 18, they kick you out,” she said. “But it takes time to get back on your feet especially when you’ve had a horrible childhood.”

Luckily, she met Janet Kelly, the executive director of Sanctuary of Hope and the co-founder of the collaborative. Kelly helped enroll Wilcher in a mentorship program and start her own catering business.

For the past year, with support from the Office Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, leaders from across business, law enforcement, government, health, academic, interfaith, philanthropic and non-profit sectors as well as former homeless youth engaged in a series of meetings and committed themselves to identifying a plan to prevent vulnerable youth from becoming homeless. The meetings resulted in the “Homeless No More” community plan, a roadmap to move forward in the years ahead.

“Our youth may be homeless, but they are not hopeless,” said Reverend Kelvin Sauls, the pastor of Holman United Methodist Church and the chair of the collaborative.

The collaborative identified six strategic objectives to be implemented by 2019:

  • Improve the coordination of services, simplify access, and eliminate barriers
  • Increase and improve housing options for homeless youth in South LA.
  • Coordinate and enhance critical support systems and services targeting homeless TAY and foster care youth.
  • Improve public policies and systems that address or omit homeless and at-risk youth.
  • Produce and compile data and research that best describes the opportunities, needs, and gaps of homeless and at-risk youth in the South LA region.
  • Expand leadership, collaborative will, and service capacity of South South LA service providers, the faith-based community, community leaders and Transitions Age Youth.

“This plan provides hope for a community that has lacked resources,” said Gerald Thompson, co-founder and director of the collaborative.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas speaks at unveiling of “Homeless No More Community Plan”

“Our young people deserve permanent solutions such as housing, access to a shower, clean clothes, and career opportunities. This is a bold step forward, but much work remains to deliver those solutions,” the Supervisor said.

According to LAHSA Commissioner Booker Pearson, 70% of individuals in California prisons were in foster care at one time. Prison costs an average of about $47,000 per year per inmate in California.

“Think it’s cheaper to house a kid then let him go to foster care and wind up in prison?” Pearson asked rhetorically. “This is not only the right and moral thing to do. It’s economic suicide to ignore our homeless children.”

For more information, visit the collective’s website at www.southlatay.org.

Board Approves $20 Million for Diversion

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The Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted to set aside $20 million to fund mental health services, substance abuse treatment, job counseling, as well as supportive housing for mentally ill offenders as an alternative to incarceration.

“We know that jail is not the best place to treat the mentally ill and substance abusers,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who sponsored the motion setting aside the funds. “Jail only makes the mentally ill sicker, and this County has not been able to figure out how to keep them stabilized and healthy in an environment that only makes them worse.”

The mentally ill are jailed at higher rates than others, and those numbers are outpacing the County’s ability to properly treat them. Diversion, or rerouting mentally ill offenders to treatment instead of incarceration, is intended to stabilize them and reduce the likelihood of recidivism. Many of the mentally ill people that wind up in County jails have co-occurring disorders and are homeless.

“Unnecessarily jailing people with mental illness is not only expensive, because they can be treated for a fraction of the cost using community-based programs, but it is also harsh and insensitive, and dare I say, inhumane,” the Supervisor said. “Having an untreated mental illness should not be a crime.”

The County of Los Angeles has been under a Memorandum of Agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice since 2002 and could face a consent decree because the jails were not designed to accommodate or deliver treatment to inmates with severe mental illnesses.

Today, the Board of Supervisors joined with District Attorney Jackie Lacey, County mental and public health departments and the Sheriff’s Department as a financial partner committed to diversion. In 2015, the board will vote on whether to build a $2 billion jail. By setting aside $20 million in a separate fund pending receipt of the District Attorney’s report, the Board has expressed a commitment to righting this wrong.

In the Second Supervisorial District efforts to expand diversion are already underway. The MLK Mental Health Urgent Care Center opened its doors earlier this month on the Martin Luther King Medical Campus. The center is a one-stop shop for families, individuals and law enforcement to bring a person suffering acute distress or an episode related to mental illness. Patients will receive a variety of services including psychiatric evaluation and assessment, crisis intervention, substance abuse counseling and medication support from an on-site team of experts from the county’s departments of mental health, social services, health services and public health.

For more information on the MLK Mental Health Urgent Care Center, please visit:

http://ridley-thomas.lacounty.gov/index.php/mlk-mental-health/

My Health LA to Enroll More Residents

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With an estimated 400,000 people in Los Angeles County unable to qualify for health coverage under the federal; Affordable Care Act, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and St. John’s Well Child and Family Center have moved to provide free health care for those still in need.

The My Health LA program, which launches October 1, is a no-cost health care program through 164 community partner clinics for low-income residents of Los Angeles County who do not have health insurance. The program, which received $61,000 in funding from Los Angeles County, has evolved from a two decade-long partnership between LA County and local community clinics and health centers. Patients will receive primary care services at clinics, such as health screenings, physicals, chronic disease management, and prescription medications. Specialty care and more acute services will be provided by LA County’s Department of Health Services.

“My Health LA demonstrates the commitment of Los Angeles County to expand health coverage to the uninsured and to ensure access to care for the most vulnerable among us,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “Every person living in Los Angeles deserves access to health care and we will not stop until this is achieved. We need health care for all.”

By giving access to medical care for all residents, patients can treat their symptoms early on in their illness and avoid much more expensive emergency care later on. In addition, diagnosing certain contagious illnesses at their onset is increasingly important to contain them quickly.

Since January, hundreds of thousands of people in California have enrolled in the Affordable Care Act. In addition, free medical, dental and vision services recently were made available to thousands through the fifth annual Care Harbor Free Clinic.

St. John’s Chief Executive Jim Mangia noted that the center, which offers primary care services and supportive services to address families’ educational, socio-economic, and mental health needs, will not turn anyone away.

Sister Dolores Riojas of St. Thomas Church in Los Angeles said many of her parishioners were lacking in healthcare.

“We thank Supervisor Ridley-Thomas for the leadership he has provided in helping working families,” she said. “Now they will be getting treated early on.”

Click here to find a clinic near you. Participants should call the clinic to make an appointment to enroll and to make sure the clinic is taking new patients.