LA County treats its girls as victims instead of criminals

Ten 14-to-16-year-old girls ran joyously through the gates of Disneyland with Mickey Mouse ears in May for the first time. That day, there was no talk of crisis or treatment. There was merriment, running to rides and taking pictures with Princess Tiana.

These girls were victims of child sex trafficking and clients of Saving Innocence, a non-profit organization that mentors child victims of sex trafficking in Los Angeles County. This trip was the first of its kind since Saving Innocence’s inception in 2010, fundraised for in a silent auction in a November gala last year.

Sara Elander, one of Saving Innocence’s case managers on the trip, said Disneyland wasn’t just “the happiest place on earth” for her clients, but a way to relive a childhood that was robbed from them.

Although Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children is thought to be an international problem, it is increasingly a domestic issue, according to the California Child Welfare Council. Each year, 100,000 minors are sold for sex within the United States and 300,000 are at risk of becoming victims, according to the FBI. The average age of recruitment by pimps is around 12 and 13 for boys and girls respectively.

Within the United States, California has emerged as a magnet for CSEC. The San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas have been identified as three of the nation’s thirteen High Intensity Child Prostitution areas.

In 2006, the California Legislature created The Child Welfare Council to call for multi-collaboration efforts with various agencies, programs and courts to serve children in California’s child welfare and foster care systems.

However, awareness didn’t gain traction until later years.

It wasn’t until a meeting on Nov. 16, 2010 that Michelle Guymon’s trajectory on CSEC changed.

Prior to that day, Guymon – who worked at the LA County Probation Department’s Interagency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect – didn’t know how the department’s newly formed Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking division would affect probation children.

“To me the only thing I knew about sex trafficking was that it happened to kids in other countries,” said Guymon.

Her life changed at the division’s first meeting when she learned many minors arrested for prostitution and placed in juvenile halls were victims of sex trafficking.

The division was created to address the government’s problematic response that treated sex trafficking victims as criminals, placing them in detention facilities or labeling them as prostitutes.

After this revelation, Guymon traveled across the United States with Hania Cardenas, director of placement community transition services for the Los Angeles County Probation Department, to visit the major hubs of DMST to see what it was and what others were doing about it.

Guyman and Cardenas found a girls’ court in Nevada led by Judge William O. Voy, a law enforcement response and a group home in Texas, a prevention curriculum in Boston and the Girls Educational and Mentoring Services founded by Rachel Lloyd in New York.

After their six-month trip of discovery and heartbreak, the two women returned to LA wanting to shift focus from punishment to rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Catherine Pratt, handling delinquency cases at the Compton courthouse since 2008, noticed over the years that many of the girls arrested for prostitution “were not making much progress.”

After one of the girls on probation for prostitution charges faced legitimate threats that her pimp would kill her and Pratt was tasked with keeping the girl safe, she began to research the uncharted areas of CSEC.

Her research delved psychological concepts like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, psychological manipulation by pimps and the “grooming” process. She also discovered that pimps were becoming more violent and were targeting younger children.

Both she and Guymon applied for grants from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to address growing concerns of DMST and a striking contradiction of the law where girls too young to consent to sex were prosecuted for selling it.

In 2012, the Probation and Justice Departments were each awarded three-year grants of $300,000 and $350,000 each year, respectively. The grants created the Child Trafficking Unit, with Guymon as its director, and the Los Angeles County Succeeding Through Achievement and Resilience court under Pratt’s leadership.

Housed in a juvenile delinquency court in Compton, STAR court helps commercially sexually exploited children gain access to counseling, re-enter school and safely transition to family or community placements. This specialty court’s team consists of a district attorney, public defender, probation officers supervised by Guymon and advocates from Saving Innocence, Alliance for Children’s Rights, Public Counsel, Healthy Minds, Children’s Law Center of California and The Virtuous Woman Ministries, Inc. led by Reverend Deborah Manns. The team meets every Wednesday to discuss each child’s case the week before they meet with the girls on Tuesday, a day exclusively set for sex trafficking cases.

Since the grants’ expirations in 2014, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has covered the expenses of STAR court and the Probation Department has pledged a commitment to continue the unit “with or without funding”.

In conjunction with STAR court, Guymon works with the Board of Supervisors, the courts, law enforcement and the social services agencies to develop prevention and intervention strategies for rehabilitative services for children in the Department of Children and Family Services and in the Probation Department.

Her trainings led staff to see CSEC with a new vision, a “victim centered approach” where victims of DMST feel safe to speak of their exploitation.

A three-day training led by survivor Nola Brantley that left 50 government staff feeling like “deer in a headlight” started a shift in LA County’s juvenile halls, specifically in Central Juvenile Hall, said Guymon.

“It was emotional, and it was heavy and it was hard to hear,” said Guymon, who left the training “inspired but devastated all at the same time.”

Guymon went from organizing the three-day training of 50 people to one-day trainings that accommodate 250 people every month.

A data run through the Probation system revealed that from 2009 to 2013, there were 1,386 child arrests, 800 of which were unique individuals, and efforts to combat criminalization gained momentum with the First Step Diversion Program that began in 2013 to provide services through law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office without requiring victims of DMST to have a case filed against them.

More recently, the Law Enforcement First Responder Protocol that began in August 2014 acts as a “first step” for a victim-centered response model for law enforcement, county agencies and community-based partners to treat children exposed to severe violence, threats and trauma as victims of child abuse and human trafficking rather than criminalizing them as delinquents.

Instead of arresting the children involved in DMST, law enforcement would hand them over to Probation or DCFS. The pilot program currently operates within Long Beach, Compton and Century.

Although Guymon is happy that the protocol recovered 32 kids, only two of whom went AWOL, this number reveals a shift of trafficked minors by their pimps away from the protocol’s pilot areas. Guymon’s next move is to expand the areas until pimps are kicked out of the county and eventually, the state.

In the past month, the news has picked up on various efforts to combat DMST. Talks of a ‘Don’t Be Silent’ campaign with the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a $250,000 training program for staffers and community partners, a new treatment facility in the foster system to protect children from their pimps, a $1.5 million federal grant to create a Los Angeles County Human Trafficking Task Force and new regulations of hotel and motels to ensure they aren’t sites for child prostitution reveal LA’s continuing commitment to address the needs of CSEC.

In the past month efforts in the senate have also been underway as Senate Bill 420 was introduced by Bob Huff to target the demand side of human trafficking. If passed, the bill would break Penal Code Section 647b into three sections to make a distinction between buyers and sellers to collect statistics that law enforcement and prosecutors need for crafting solutions to DMST.

DMST’s roots however remain in the abuse, neglect and trauma children experience prior to being trafficked. Often, a history of sexual abuse acts as a “grooming process” for later sexual exploitation. A third of commercially sexually exploited children are recruited from the child welfare system. Unfortunately, the lack of family ties that social workers try to repair is often the same vulnerability pimps seek to exploit.

A pimp that promised his victim everything and never gave up and was appealing because it was consistent and it was better than having 24 different group homes in a two to three year period, said Guymon.

While the probation department is able to keep a tighter leash on children that enter the system, the dependency system faces challenges.

Linda Jackson, a DCFS social worker, said these challenges come from the inability to provide out-of-state placement or to keep victims of DMST locked up.

“The only drawback [to] in-state placement is that it just opens the door for these girls to run to go back to the pimp,” said Jackson.

To escape the dependency system, children often lie about their age due to bad experiences with group and foster homes, said Liza Davis, a staff attorney for the Children’s Rights Project at Public Counsel.

“I think it’s really hard to just have one system to help all the kids cause every kid is different,” said Davis. “Every kid has different needs.”

Most children who enter STAR court have complicated pasts and about 80 percent of STAR court participants had a DCFS history.

When children first go through STAR court, they don’t identify as victims or want help because their traumatic histories with adults in positions of authority have led to a resistance for help.

“I think that the approach that is most effective with these kids is to build a relationship with them and to show them that there are adults that are trustworthy that want to help them,” said Pratt.

One of the ways she does this is by asking them what they want, even if she can’t give them what they want.

“Kids who grew up in foster care typically have very little choice about what happens to them,” said Pratt.

After building rapport with the children she sees every month, Pratt connects them to the services of her team.

One of Davis’s clinics is at STAR court, where she connects children to special education services to address emotional issues, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, learning disability and other needs that get in the way of their education.

The problem comes as schools often mistaken their special needs as “an attitude problem,” she said.

Currently, STAR court has 105 children – all whom are girls except for one transgender girl. A remarkable 45 percent these children have never been arrested for prostitution, revealing a shift away from criminalization.

Another of STAR court’s milestones is the reduced average number of days minors spend in custody from 35 to 25 days.

This specialty court has collectively seen 270 children, but others go through the delinquency or dependency systems without ever being identified as commercially sexually exploited children. In a county of 10 million residents, the harsh reality is that there are still child-serving agency workers who are not trained to recognize threats to a child’s welfare.

But those who have made it to STAR court find they are encouraged to talk, more than what is allowed in a typical courtroom.

Pratt always begins with a cheery, “Hello, how are you?”

As the girls come in to see her every month, each girl is given individual attention, made to feel special and treated as a friend.

“We were really scared when you went out on the street,” Pratt would tell her girls that went AWOL.

Most commercially sexually exploited children run away six or seven times, in a psychological process similar to domestic violence, making staying put a difficult ordeal.

“How do I know you will stay if I have you in open placement?” she asked a girl in an orange jumpsuit on a Tuesday this month.

“I really want to be better and go to school,” said Vivian.

Like Vivian, many girls want to make Pratt proud and want to show her how they plan to change.

Pratt would then reason with her girls and offer them a chance of redemption, but not without warning.

“No AWOLing,” she’d say in a stern, motherly tone.

It’s easy to see Pratt is loved by many of her STAR court girls. Her chambers and scattered with letters, thank you cards, paintings and graduation pictures.

“A lot of the girls really like to write. It’s pretty cathartic for them so I always encourage them to share their writings with me if they feel comfortable. Some of them will bring them to court, some of them will read them in court.”

Others who like to paint have their works framed in Pratt’s courtroom. One of the paintings is of a girl with wings inscribed with the words, “free at last” and the word, “dream” across the top-center of the canvas, surrounded by tiny blue handprints and multicolored shapes.

Others have decorated tiles. One tile is emblazoned with the words, “It feels so good to be called by my name instead of B.” Another reads, “A pimp preys on the bruised [and] broken… so what does that say about the kind of man he is?”

At a two and a half day Empowerment Conference STAR court holds every year at a camp near Big Bear in November, the STAR court girls are celebrated and empowered with activities like dance and sessions with survivors exploited as teens who are now in their 20’s and 30’s out of the life, making families and working in conventional jobs.

As the girls ask the survivor panel questions, there is “always something that surprises us, things that are big concerns for these kids that we don’t think about,” said Pratt.

Questions such as, “Will my family ever forgive me?” “Will I ever forgive myself?” and “How do I explain to my daughter that her father is a pimp?” reveal that there are aspects people won’t understand unless they’ve lived the life, said Pratt.

Nevertheless, STAR court has shown progress with its girls: 73 percent of these girls were never rearrested and 30 percent have voluntarily stayed in contact with STAR court team.

Both Pratt and advocates from Saving Innocence also make efforts to keep in touch with the children by attending their graduation ceremonies, birthdays and baby showers, acting as the family that most of these girls never had.

STAR court’s collaborative culture started a couple years ago when Renee came to court and asked Pratt if she would attend her high school graduation.

By the time Pratt made it to the jam-packed gradation room in Orange County, she could see that there was no one there for Renee. No family member or group home staff. Renee was in tears.

After Renee spotted Pratt in the audience, she wiped her tears, grew excited and made her way to the stage. It wasn’t until then that Pratt realized Renee wasn’t just a graduate but the class valedictorian. In her speech, Renee read a poem describing her life in foster care and her fight for rehabilitation.

“I am truly blessed to be here because I was not supposed to be. I am among the unseen and the uncounted. When your parents stress about taxes, it is me that they are unknowingly paying to house, to clothe and to feed. But if they knew me as a person, they’d probably more willingly give,” read Renee.

Her struggles were supposed to break her.

“My heart was frightened of what I thought you would think,” she read, “but through smiles and laughter our differences disintegrated.”

Renee is among the population that statistics say within a year of turning 18 will end up homeless and on the street due to a lack of experience and opportunity.

“I cannot change my past, but I can mold myself a future. I stand tall today head held high, with no shame because I made it this far and I’m nowhere near done… I made it, I crawled through the wreckage to a bright future.”

Moved by Renee’s poem and accomplishments, Pratt decided to do her best to attend special events for her STAR court girls.

This year, seven or eight girls in STAR court are graduating and although Pratt’s schedule doesn’t allow her to attend all graduations, she is planning a party for all of the girls so they can celebrate together.

“[Graduation is] something that no one can take away from them,” said Pratt.

Years later, Elander drove her girls back from a Disneyland trip when one of her clients said, “You did a really good thing today. You gave us back our childhood.”

That moment was one Elander said she will never forget.