Battling Sex Trafficking in L.A. County


For two years now, Commissioner Catherine Pratt has been at the helm of Los Angeles County’s STAR Court program, which identifies and supports victims of sex trafficking who are under age and refers them to specialized help. In partnership with the Los Angeles County Probation Department, local law enforcement agencies, counseling groups and foster care agencies, Pratt has helped dozens of under-age girls receive help and guidance. It is a challenging job, where the victims are often unwilling to participate in their own recovery due to fear or hopelessness. Through the STAR program, the court and probation received $650,000 per year in federal grant money for three years. The grant is set to expire at the end of 2014. Although it is a struggle, Pratt is optimistic that more people are realizing the prevalence of underage sex trafficking. This is particularly challenging, Pratt says, in a society where pimps are glorified in popular culture and where men who solicit sex with underage girls are rarely prosecuted. (She once bought the handbook on how to become a pimp, called Pimpology, under the self-help/relationships category at a local bookstore.) Pratt, who has worked in juvenile delinquency for seven years and dependency court prior to that for a decade, is hoping funding for the program will continue and will evolve into more services like specialized housing for these victims.

Q. How did you become involved with the child trafficking issue?


A.      For the first five years in court, I was in Compton and saw a lot of girls who had been involved in prostitution. Most of these kids would not have homes to go to. They would spend three to four weeks in juvenile hall and return every couple months. They were not going to school or building any relationships. I realized they were spending as much time in custody as kids in juvenile camps on serious felony violations. And then, Judge Donna Groman came to me and asked if I wanted to try out a program where we could think about different ways of working with these kids.

Q. This is a tough problem to deal with, right?

A.       It is very much like domestic violence. They say that women will often leave their husbands or spouses six or seven times before they are strong enough to stay away and this is similar.

Q. What is the idea behind the STAR court program?

A. In doing the research for the grant, I realized that of the arrests that happened in 2010, 85 percent were from South LA, Compton, Long Beach and Inglewood and 94 percent of the girls were African American. And, there is a big connection with foster care. These kids are pretty disenfranchised. Most don’t have a stable family. They have been in and out of group homes and foster homes and relative’s homes. So, I realized that the key was having them make a connection. That became my goal.

Q. How do you force them to make a connection?

A.Well, by working with Saving Innocence, a mentoring program for the girls. Also, the way the foster care system works, when a girl leaves a group home [goes AWOL], the foster home or group home does not want her back. So we sat down with a handful of group home providers and said, “these kids will AWOL and you will take them back.” We would have the girls meet with the group home providers while they were in juvenile hall so that the girls could make some sort of connection with the group home before they moved in. Saving Innocence also meets with them and continues to be with them. That is the way to start making these personal connections and having these kids trust people in authority.

Q. Have the pimps become more violent?

A.Yes, in the last six years, I have seen an increase in the violence. I think it is because it is a gang related business now. It is very lucrative. The estimates I have seen is that if one pimp has four girls working for him, he can make $1.5 million a year, tax free. And you can sell it ten times a night. With a drug you can only sell it once.

Q. Has the business become more sophisticated?

A.      Once a girl gets arrested, the undercover cops know her so the pimps rotate her between the Valley, Pomona, the Figueroa corridor and then Oakland, Vegas, San Diego and Los Angeles. The average age they start is between 12 and 14. By the time they come to me in court they are 14 or 15 so they have been doing it for a couple years, which is a long time. But these are girls arrested for street prostitution. A lot of it is done online and we haven’t figured out how to find those people..

Q. Many advocates for the victims of sex trafficking say the offense should be “decriminalized” for minors. What does that mean?

A.The basic step is to say this is not a crime. If you are under the age of 18 then you don’t have the capacity for consent. If you are not old enough to consent to sex, how are you old enough to consent to sell sex? I think changing the law is a relatively easy thing and once there is the political will it can be done. The hard thing is how are we going to provide them with services? The funding just doesn’t exist for it.

Q. You see a lot of attention paid to the pimps and the girls in this discussion about sex trafficking but not much about the customers. Why?

A. The truth is that it is a very sticky cultural and political question. Once we start looking at who the customers are they are going to be a lot of normal everyday people and people who have high profile jobs. You are going to have to have a lot of political will to make sure these cases are prosecuted. In the six years that I have been dealing with underage prostitution cases, I have not seen one instance of a “John” arrested in a police report.

Q. What would you like to see happen on this issue?

A.I would like there to be a lot more awareness of what this is and that we are letting our kids be used like this. These kids are not as invisible as we think they are. We just have to look.