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Los Angeles Trying New Tactics to Help Children, Many in Foster Care, Who Are Sexually Trafficked

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Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew helps other survivors of child sex trafficking and works against trafficking as an advocate.

By Kristy Plaza and Alana Victor | Originally published May 3, 2016, in YouthToday.org

LOS ANGELES — Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew grew up in the foster care system in Los Angeles, where she lived in 14 different group homes, most of which featured various levels of abuse. Her experience showed her how children, in a system built to protect them, often face life-endangering risks that often go unnoticed by the public.

Los Angeles Bureau logo - a city skyline silhouette.Pettigrew and others have seen how cases of abuse in the foster care system can drive the children out of their group or foster homes in search of someone who can fill the painful void left in their lives by the lack of family, or any other kind of caring adult.

“At the age of 10, I met a man that said he was going to love me, care for me, everything that I wanted someone to do, because I had no one,” Pettigrew said. But “love” and “care” turned out to have harrowing strings attached. “From the age of 10 to 17, I was employed here in California, from San Diego all the way up to Washington.”

By “employed,” Pettigrew means she was sexually abused for money as a victim of child sex trafficking.

“I cannot remember my 10th through 13th birthdays,” she said. “My 14th birthday I was in Las Vegas. My 15th birthday I was in San Diego. My 16th I was on a break home, coming back from Washington. And my 17th I was in juvenile hall.”

Pettigrew’s recruitment out of a group home was not unique.

Sheriff McDonnell

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell. Photo: WitnessLA.com

Seventy percent of the kids involved [in sex trafficking] we find locally are from foster care,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell. “They are kids who didn’t have much of a chance from an early age and now are revictimized by pimps.”

The California Child Welfare Council has similar numbers for the state, reporting that 50 to 80 percent of Commercially Sexually Exploited Children — or CSEC — have had child welfare involvement.

Charity Chandler-Cole, who is now on the board of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, said she became aware of the issue of sex trafficking while living in her group home as a teenager. She watched as other children in the home would be released by staff to their pimp at night and let back into the group home hours later for a small fee. Other forms of prostitution, such as girls being used in pornographic videos, also took place, she said. All too soon, Chandler-Cole was introduced to those pimps and propositioned. She became a victim of sex trafficking.

Charity Chandler smiling headshot

Charity Chandler-Cole. Photo: LinkedIn

“During my stay there, I was exploited in such a manner by the very people that were supposed to protect me,” she said. “I had no one to run to. I had nowhere to go because the system was the one violating me and so many others.”

Each year in the United States, more than 1,000 children are arrested as “child prostitutes,” even though they are not legally old enough to consent to sex. African-American children make up 59 percent of all prostitution-related arrests under the age of 18.

Los Angeles County is considered both a major hub and a transit route for sex-trafficked youth.

With all this in mind, last year the LA County Sheriff’s Department, the LA County Board of Supervisors and LA County Probation, plus the U.S. Justice Department and others launched a series of new strategies to address the disturbing problem of LA’s sex-trafficked children.

So what progress has been made?

The nature of the crime

According to McDonnell, sex-trafficking minors is a very profitable business. If a pimp has five girls operating every day, the sheriff said, he can make $600,000 to $800,000 per  year.

“You sell dope once and it’s gone. You can sell a person over and over again,” McDonnell said, his expression grim.

Girls are forced into horrific conditions and experiences so they can make the quota their pimps require for the day.

Prior to his election as Los Angeles County sheriff in 2014, McDonnell served as the second in command at the LA Police Department, and then the chief of the Long Beach (California) Police Department. During his time as chief in Long Beach, in particular, McDonnell saw that pimps were typically local gang members, 18 to 28 years old.

Unlike drug sales, this high-profit margin work is relatively low risk because of the internet, cellphones and the network of people involved, according to McDonnell.

Child sex trafficking isn’t an easy crime to spot, so many people still believe this is an international problem, he said. But “we found that the more we looked the more we found, very sadly.”

Sex trafficking has to occur somewhere, and often, McDonnell said, that “somewhere” is right next door, just out of sight, on the side of the road in an RV, in a motel room, hotel room or a vacant house.

Changing language to change minds

One of the problems with previous law enforcement strategies, said McDonnell and others, was the fact that victims of trafficking were those most likely to be arrested, not the traffickers or the customers who make the crime of trafficking children for sex profitable.

To help combat the re-victimizing of trafficked children, the No Such Thing as a Child Prostitute campaign was introduced by the Rights4Girls organization. The mission is to stop labeling the victims of child sex trafficking as prostitutes; they are survivors of child rape.

Michelle Guymon smiling headshot

Michelle Guymon. Photo: LinkedIn

McDonnell and the LA County Board of Supervisors quickly embraced the strategy. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl explained at the launch of the No Such Thing campaign on Oct. 21 last year that, until very recently, she was told that arrest and incarceration were the only effective means of stabilizing commercially sexually exploited children.

“Fortunately, it’s not those experts we are listening to anymore,” Kuehl said. “Now we’re listening to the real experts, the people who have created the movement, the children themselves who have spoken and said, ‘No, it is not what we need to be locked behind bars, to be protected from exploiters and predators. That is not what we need for protection.’”

Through the insight the survivors provided, the existing approach was reformed to become victim- or child-centered.

Typically, when CSEC victims were caught in the past, they were arrested and treated as criminals because California does not have safe harbor laws, legislation that clearly states how sexually exploited children should be treated as victims, not prostitutes. This was an approach that victim advocates have opposed.

Michelle Guymon, who is in charge of providing health and mentoring services for child sex-trafficking victims as director of placement administration services for Los Angeles County Probation, said the absence of such laws can be seen in a different light with a shift in protocol.

“I think what happens when you don’t have safe harbor is that people are motivated and passionate about doing the work and you can still make things happen,” Guymon said.

Legislation is not a magical solution, she explained. In fact, some of the states with safe harbor laws continue to arrest children for prostitution.

“I’m in meetings all the time with people from some of those states that have safe harbor. They still detain kids, and they’ve learned other ways around it,” Guymon said. “What came with safe harbor is no money for resources so they’re kind of stuck and are seeing some unintended consequences by not having programs set up.”

According to Guymon, Los Angeles has started rolling out programs so that when California does pass safe harbor legislation, the funding is secured and builds on what has already been started.

The three-prong solution

Last September, the LA Sheriff’s Department was able to take a big step forward with its strategy to combat the sex trafficking of children when it received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to fund the establishment of a multi-agency Los Angeles Human Trafficking Task Force. The task force, a partnership of multiple federal, state and county agencies as well as community-based organizations, is designed to target the CSEC problem by using a three-pronged approach that is also victim-centered.

The ceremonial ribbon-cutting at the kickoff for the new multi-agency Los Angeles Human Trafficking Task Force.

The ceremonial ribbon-cutting at the kickoff for the new multi-agency Los Angeles Human Trafficking Task Force. Photo: Alana Victor

The first of the three prongs involves going after the pimps and traffickers, using appropriate laws to identify, arrest and prosecute them.

With the second prong, the LASD and the task force aims to go after the demand side, “the johns,” the classic term used for buyers. McDonnell explained that, rather than citing the johns with prostitution charges for a small fine, as was the norm, the task force aims to indict them on charges of child molestation, statutory rape or conspiracy to commit either.

“So by doing that and publicizing what we are doing, we hope to create a disincentive so that people don’t engage in this behavior,” McDonnell said. “And we knock down the demand side so that there isn’t the tremendous profit that was fueling this all along.”

With the third prong, the task force identifies the victims, not as suspects, but as kids in need of rescue from their forced prostitution.

This third prong is being newly defined through the use of the Law Enforcement First Responder Protocol for Commercially Sexually Exploited Children, a system designed to identify victims of sexual exploitation at the first point of contact. Then law enforcement works collaboratively with county agencies and community-based organizations to avoid arresting the victim and to provide him or her with the services and resources they need to escape exploitation.

The new law enforcement protocol first began to be used on Aug. 15, 2014, by the Long Beach Police Department and the Compton Sheriff’s Station.

One year before the rollout, there were 94 arrests in Long Beach and Compton, according to Guymon. Since use of the protocol began, only two arrests for child prostitution have been made in this region.

The new alternatives to arrest have allowed for the proper treatment of these victims.

“[With the new approach] law enforcement has more options and avenues for responding so they aren’t stuck with what to do,” Guymon said. “All the knowledge and training, all the things we’ve done coming together has us doing things differently.”

At the introduction of the No Such Thing as a Child Prostitute campaign last October, Los Angeles Supervisor Don Knabe, Malika Saada Saar, former executive director of Rights4Girls, and Kim Biddle, the executive director of Saving Innocence, speak.

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