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.”