Alameda County Grapples With Child Prostitution

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    NEWSLETTERS

    According to California law, the hundreds of girls arrested nationwide each year on suspicion of prostitution are both criminals and victims.

    On a crisp, sunny May morning this year, nine girls sat at desks in a classroom at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center wearing pink T-shirts and burgundy sweatpants with "Al Co" written down the side.
       
    After their classes ended at about 2:30 p.m., the girls would go to individual therapy sessions or gender-specific programming, such as health and dating classes, said Kim Godfrey, a supervisor at the facility.
          
    They would be escorted to and from most scheduled activities, and later they would be relegated to cinderblock cells containing only their clothes, a sink, and two platform beds. Lights would go out at 9 p.m.

    On that day in May, the center was a temporary home to 86 boys and 25 girls.

    "Anecdotally, we've seen about 60 percent of them before," said David Muhammad, the chief probation officer for Alameda County.

    Ten of the girls at the Juvenile Justice Center that day were being held on prostitution charges, exemplifying a legal paradox that is at the heart of efforts to rehabilitate the youths.

    According to California law, the hundreds of girls arrested nationwide each year on suspicion of prostitution are both criminals and victims.

    They are allegedly guilty of prostitution, but since juveniles can't consent to have sex, they certainly can't consent to sell it, law enforcement and service providers agree.

    The girls are therefore classified as commercially sexually exploited children -- a form of human trafficking -- and are acknowledged to have suffered both violent crime and civil rights abuses.
       
    But while some advocates question why the girls are arrested for the crimes of their traffickers, completely decriminalizing underage prostitution could have complicated effects that would run counter to the goals of advocates and law enforcement alike, some experts say.
       
    Commercially sexually exploited children experience such intense trauma bonding with their pimps that it can be almost impossible to break those ties unless the girls are forcibly, physically removed from contact with their abusers, according to police and county officials.
       
    They argue that until better solutions are found, the 25- to 45-day "cooling off" period afforded by Juvenile Hall can be essential to protecting commercially sexually exploited youth -- despite the potentially traumatic effects of incarceration and the mixed messages the courts are sending these girls. 
       
    As a result, the victim-perpetrator dichotomy has created a sort of judicial purgatory for the young girls involved, most of whom are abused long before they reach the nation's streets and motels.   
          
    -- LOCKED UP --
          

    Chief Muhammad, who was a youth advocate for many years, admits that incarceration is harmful to young people.
       
    Researchers have found that juvenile incarceration reduces human capital -- including education and social capital -- and increases criminal capital, which can hinder future earnings and increase the likelihood of recidivism.
          
    "But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be used," Muhammad said, especially if the youth is a threat to society or, as in the case of commercially sexually exploited youth, needs to be protected.

    In order to try to weaken the trauma bonding, the probation department holds girls arrested for prostitution while their cases go through the initial court stages. Whether the charges are ultimately dropped depends upon the individual cases.

    Minors who are arrested in Alameda County are brought to the Juvenile Justice Center's intake area -- a large room with barren holding cells along the left side and a desk stretching across the center -- and given an extensive risk assessment evaluation.
       
    The risk assessment concept used by Juvenile Hall was developed by the car insurance industry to evaluate driver safety, Muhammad said. Youth are scored based upon severity of their current offense, their most serious prior conviction, current legal status, and aggravating and mitigating
    factors. 

    Those who score below a 10 are typically released while the judicial process plays out, but sometimes the department overrides the evaluation and automatically holds the offender.

    A youth arrested for the first time on suspicion of prostitution might only score a 2 on the assessment, but there is an automatic override if officials determine that the girl needs protection from sexual exploitation, or if authorities are unable to locate a parent or guardian.

    "Overrides are very standard, but it depends on what's political in each jurisdiction," Muhammad said.

    A few years ago in Washington, D.C., for example, a rash of car burglaries led to an automatic override on all grand theft auto charges, he said. Here, it's commercial sexual exploitation of children that has reached epidemic proportions.

    "Percentage-wise, Oakland and Atlanta are the worse worst spots in the country," Muhammad said.

    Once in custody, the girls undergo mental and physical health evaluations and treatment. About 30 to 40 percent of the exploited youth have sexually transmitted infections, compared to about 19 percent of the general population, said Shanta Ramdeholl, director of medical services at the
    Juvenile Justice Center. 

    Fortunately, she said, HIV cases are almost nonexistent, but the facility typically has between one and five pregnancies at any given time.

    On the day Bay City News Service visited, one pregnant girl was in custody and one had been released the day before. Both girls were victims of commercial sexual exploitation, Ramdeholl said.

    The girls have almost no contact with boys while they're housed at the Juvenile Justice Center, but girls arrested on suspicion of prostitution are housed and interact with girls arrested on other violent and non-violent charges.

    Muhammad said staffing and funding limitations prevent the creation of a unit specifically tailored to sexually exploited youth, which would also be complicated by the reality that some girls brought in on other charges are later discovered to have been working as prostitutes.
       
    Each unit has several cells arranged on two floors around an open common area with fixed tables. The common areas lead to enclosed concrete yards with basketball hoops. Outside the unit, the youth are only allowed to move freely for medical and court appointments, Muhammad said.

    The facility basically has two populations: youths incarcerated for short periods of time and youths charged as adults being held until they're transferred to prison. About 25 boys at the facility on the day of the visit had been charged as adults, but only one girl has been charged as an adult in the last 10 years, Muhammad said.

    Since the girls don't interact with the boys, a commercially sexually exploited youth would not come into contact with the facility's most serious offenders, he said.

    Asking the girls how incarceration affects them is difficult because interviewing a youth either in custody or going through the legal process would require the girl, her guardian, and a judge to all sign off on the conversation. Court records related to juvenile cases are sealed for
    privacy. 

    Several nonprofits also declined to arrange interviews with survivors of domestic sex trafficking, saying that even as adults, the women could be in danger if their former pimps recognized their stories.
          
    -- A NECESSARY EVIL? --
          
    For all of its drawbacks, arresting exploited youth seems to be one of the few available options for disrupting the bond between the pimps and their underage victims.

    Alameda County identifies about 200 sexually exploited youths each year and continues to case manage about 120 from previous years, said Barbara Loza-Muriera, facilitator of the county's Sexually Exploited Minors Network.   

    Although the girls are occasionally kidnapped by "guerilla pimps" and forced to work as prostitutes, most are recruited by "Romeo pimps" who prey on runaways, foster children and girls with other vulnerabilities.

    The pimps start by befriending and then seducing the girls, who often think they're in romantic relationships with their abusers, Loza-Muriera said. Soon they introduce the girls to violence and threaten them implicitly as well as explicitly, in effect saying, "I can use my power against you or to protect you."

    As a result, a girl trafficked for sex will often return to her abuser out of fear, loyalty, or a combination of both if left to her own devices.

    It's unconstitutional to hold a girl against her will unless she has been accused of a crime, said Oakland police Sgt. Holly Joshi, a department spokeswoman who spent several years with the vice and child exploitation unit. This puts police, who recognize the girls as victims, in a difficult position.
         
    Ultimately, though, "Her physical safety has to be first," Joshi said. "If she's dead, we can't get her mind right."

    Trafficking survivor Rachel Lloyd details the dangers women face in the sex trade in her memoir, "Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds her Calling and Heals Herself."

    In 1998, Lloyd founded the nonprofit Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, an organization in New York City that serves commercially sexually exploited youth.

    She writes that different studies have found that women in the sex industry are between 40 and 130 times more likely to be murdered than other women, vulnerable to attack from both their pimps and clients, who are called "johns."

    "If asked who's worse, pimps or johns, most would not be able to choose," Lloyd writes. "They've experienced rapes, gang rapes, guns in their faces, sadistic acts, kidnappings -- all at the hands of johns."
       
    Still, the girls are so intensely abused and manipulated that rather than accept police help, they often try to call their pimps from Juvenile Hall, facility supervisor Godfrey said.

    Most juvenile arrestees call their guardians from a row of phone booths off to the right side of the intake center, but girls brought in on suspicion of prostitution have to make supervised calls at the main desk because they're so inclined to call their abusers, be it a family member who has enabled the sex trafficking or the pimp himself.

    "It happens quite often," Godfrey said. 

    Pimps have even come to court posing as the girls' fathers, with their own mothers in tow pretending to be the girls' grandmothers, she added.

    Joshi is adamant that the Oakland Police Department's duty is therefore to protect the girls.

    "We're not trying to arrest 12-year-olds for statistics," she said. "If I wanted stats I would go back to the drug unit."
          
    But putting the girls through the criminal justice system further traumatizes them, said Nola Brantley, herself a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation and director of the nonprofit MISSSEY, or Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth.

    Arrest sends the girls the message that they are criminals, when in fact they are victims, according to MISSEY.
          
    Pimps also use the threat of incarceration to control the girls, saying they will turn the girls over to police if they don't behave or that the girls will be arrested if they ever try to leave prostitution or turn their pimps in.

    The organization therefore supports completely decriminalizing the victims of commercially sexually exploited youth and letting the girls gradually quit the sex trade.

    Brantley argues that if the girls felt more protected, they'd be more open to leaving their abusers.

    "Now they're kind of going in and out of the system because they're not on one track," she said. 

    They might simultaneously be going through the state's criminal justice, mental health and foster care tracks, but they're not receiving the specialized services that commercially sexually exploited youth need, Brantley said.
       
    Brantley envisions one centralized receiving center for sexually exploited youth that would recognize them as victims and train its staff to respond to the dangers they face.

    "A decision could be made at that location on the best safety plan as well as transition and long-term plans," she said.
          
    Other advocacy groups, however, support the arrests until a better security plan is laid out.

    "I have to commend the Oakland Police Department because they don't know who they're releasing them to," said Pat Mims, the sexually exploited minor coordinator for the nonprofit Bay Area Women Against Rape.
       
    The group accompanies Oakland police on prostitution stings and offers food, water, advocacy and case management referrals to help ease the trauma of arrest.

    "Evidently there's something going on in their lives for them to be out there, flagging cars of men that they don't even know," Mims said.

    "Before they're released I agree with finding out the best of way of keeping these kids safe until we can find out where they would go home."

    Bay Area Women Against Rape also visits the girls in Juvenile Hall two or three times each week and works with the public defender, probation department, and district attorney's office to offer input about the children's safety, Mims said.
          
    -- BALANCING INTERESTS --

    Additional pressure is placed on the victims of commercial sexual exploitation because they're often the best way for police to get to the girls' abusers and stop them from victimizing any more young people.

    "For every pimp that you put in prison for 10 or 20 years, you're saving hundreds of girls," Joshi said.
       
    The pimps are therefore the real focus of law enforcement efforts, but it's the girls who are on the streets every night and accessible to undercover officers.

    Sometimes female officers pose as prostitutes to catch both the men soliciting sex and the pimps who try to recruit girls on the streets, but it's too dangerous to send underage decoys and catch the pimps recruiting minors, Joshi said.

    Pimps also protect themselves with buffering techniques such as having a girl's first John of the night pay for the motel room or having am older girl act as a type of foreman who supervises and collects money from the girls working the streets.

    Advocates accuse the Police Department of arresting the girls in order to have access to them for law enforcement efforts, even though few would disagree that pursuing the pimps is a necessary component of ending sexual exploitation of youth.
         
    Kathleen Kim, a Los Angeles- based civil rights lawyer and professor at Loyola Law School who started one of the Bay Area's first legal aid programs for victims of human trafficking, said she doesn't support detaining the girls or forcing them to comply with policing.
       
    "I totally understand that for law enforcement, the most important thing for deterrence and punishment is to go after the traffickers and put them behind bars," she said. "But that doesn't make the victims whole again."

    The issue of risking further traumatizing girls during the legal proceedings versus the importance of putting their attackers behind bars is one the county of Alameda takes seriously, according to the people who run its Sexually Exploited Minors Network.

    The girls might testify only once on camera to avoid repeating their stories over and over again, and therapists often accompany them to court, said Loza-Muriera, the network facilitator.

    In court, "The girls experience the pressures of their exploiters -- and their presence -- which is not easy for anybody," she said. 

    Loza-Muriera said the county is also trying to set up an advocacy center specifically for sexually exploited youth similar to CALICO -- the Child Abuse Listening, Interviewing and Coordination Center -- which supports children throughout child abuse investigations.  
          
    -- UNIQUE NEEDS --
          
    The county is also working to create safe homes where commercially sexually exploited children can take refuge as they try to leave the sex trade.

    Alameda County recently stopped referring to safe houses for sexually exploited youth as "houses" and now prefers to call them "homes," Loza-Muriera said.

    The designation is important because a safe house is more of a domestic violence model that suggests its inhabitants just need a secure place to live, she said. But commercially sexually exploited youth need safe homes to have their worlds rebuilt, physically and psychologically, away from
    their pimps.
         
    Physical stabilization and meeting of basic needs is just one component. There needs to be "a real dedication to embrace these children and give them pieces of their childhoods back," she said.

    Sexually exploited youth have missed out on family celebrations, benchmarks of success and development, and other intangibles, Loza-Muriera said. Looking at the trajectories of their trauma, it's clear why treating them is so complex and time-consuming, she said. 

    "Exploiters are 24/7," she said. "Our goal is to repopulate the child's world with other things, but that's a hard job. Who among us is 24/7 in a program? We need to push that other stuff out so they can have room to restore and heal."
          
    Sexually exploited youth therefore need networks of support as well as several programs working in tandem, she said. Case management is done when and where it can be, with therapists working with girls at a Denny's restaurant, for example, or on their way from one place to another.
          
    "We found that there can't just be this model of you go to a session and then we kind of don't think about you until next week," Loza-Muriera said.

    The girls also often need foster care, but foster families can become frustrated with them because running away is a symptom of the exploited youths' trauma, she said.

    The county is working to develop more specific support for foster families of victims of domestic sex trafficking, as well as transitional-age housing for exploited youth who reach their late teens.

    Short-term secure shelters for the girls also need to be tailored to their unique needs, Loza-Muriera said. For example, children who are used to staying up all night on the streets can't immediately be put in housing with an 11 p.m. lights-out policy.

    The centers also have to be equipped to deal with not just Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but also Stockholm Syndrome and trauma bonding, she said.

    "The youth have a lot of triggers," Loza-Muriera said. "We need to understand them and work with them. Learn to de-escalate them and support them."

    Several groups have undertaken the challenge in the Bay Area with varying levels of success. 

    Until last year, Bay Area commercially sexually exploited youths who wanted to leave the life had to be taken to Children of the Night in Los Angeles for protection, Joshi said.

    In February of 2010, Oakland's First Covenant Church opened a safe house several hours outside the city called New Day for Children, project spokeswoman Kathy Wilson said.

    The facility currently houses 13 girls who are free to come and go as they please, and the rural setting makes it more difficult for them to return to their old lives, Wilson said.

    She said the girls seem to benefit most from being surrounded by people who identify with them.

    "They can feel very isolated, like nobody understands what they've gone through," she said. "They've had massive lifestyle and personality changes. I think the greatest power is the girls seeing and helping each other grow."

    New Day for Children is funded by private donors and corporate grants, and costs about $40,000 per girl per year to run, Wilson said. Girls can stay as long as they want.

    Alameda County is also preparing to start a $2.5 million fundraising campaign for a renovation of its Dreamcatcher facility for homeless youth, program director Nika St. Claire said.

    The facility will have six beds specifically for commercially sexually exploited youth, although it is located in downtown Oakland and thus too visible to be labeled a safe house, St. Claire said.

    "Everybody admits these girls are victims, and yet our policies are still to bring them to Juvenile Hall because that's what everybody says we need to do to keep them safe," she said. "Many of us believe there should be an alternative."

    The program for commercially sexually exploited youth will be for stays of two to 60 days, but will account for the fact that some girls need more time, St. Claire said.

    "I just can't wait to actually get some money and start renovations," she said. Construction is scheduled to be done in March or April of 2012.

    Loza-Muriera is hopeful that once these and other service options begin to gain momentum, solutions to the victim-perpetrator question will begin to emerge. 

    "I know sometimes people say there's this side of the fence and that side of the fence," Loza-Muriera said. "But everybody is sort of in the middle. Everyone deals with the systems that we've got -- law enforcement and social services -- and just works up against them."
          
    Anyone wishing to report a potential victim of commercial sexual exploitation is encouraged to call 911 or the national human trafficking hotline at 888-373-7888.