A 14-year-old girl is raped. Repeatedly. Law enforcement arrives on the scene. Officers determine there is reasonable cause the crime of rape occurred. This child has been raped and sexually abused by multiple people in just 24 hours. They then arrest … the child.
Wait. What? Confused?
This child is a victim of sex trafficking. She’s been found with a purchaser who paid a trafficker money to have sex with her. She’s been under the control of the trafficker for months.
The shocking situation described here is real, and it happens because law enforcement in many California jurisdictions falsely believe they must arrest the child victim for prostitution. Instead of immediately being referred to child welfare services and community agencies who specialize in services for child abuse victims, child sex trafficking victims like this girl frequently are arrested and taken to jail for prostitution.
If this child was raped by a family member or someone else in her home, law enforcement wouldn’t think twice about what to do or who to arrest. They would report the child to a county child welfare agency as a victim of child abuse and arrest the rapist.
A different and offensive standard has been set for child victims of sex trafficking: Criminalizing them for something they can’t legally consent to, telling them they don’t deserve the same type of protection as other child abuse victims.
Sex trafficking survivors are quite clear what being arrested and treated like a criminal says to them:
“Being arrested reinforces that I’d be better off sticking with him. He said that this was going to happen – that I’d go to jail if I left him. No one else cares.”
A bill on Governor’s Brown’s desk would stop the practice of treating child victims of sex trafficking as criminals. SB 1322 by Sen. Holly Mitchell decriminalizes prostitution and loitering with intent to commit prostitution for minors. The bill further requires peace officers who encounter children involved in commercial sex acts are to report suspected abuse or neglect of the minor to the county child welfare agency.
SB 1322 sends a strong message to victims of child trafficking: You are not a criminal.
It also builds upon California state law – SB 855 – enacted in 2014 to clarify that commercial sexual exploitation is child abuse and victims should be served by child welfare agencies. The legislature provided $20 million to help child welfare agencies and community partners get victims the immediate, appropriate services they need to heal.
Counties and communities statewide are using this funding and seizing the opportunity to treat child sex trafficking victims with dignity and care.
As just one example, Los Angeles County law enforcement does not arrest child victims of sex trafficking. Instead, when they find a child victim they work alongside partners in the district attorney’s office, social services, mental and public health, plus leading non-profit organizations Trinity Youth and Saving Innocence, which both specialize in emergency services for sex trafficking victims, to help the victim. These agencies have an elaborate protocol outlining how each entity should respond to a child sex trafficking victim.
This county has adopted a powerful and important message in its practices and protocols: There’s simply #NoSuchThing as a child prostitute.
Other counties are following suit. It’s a message and practice that all California jurisdictions should be working toward implementing. SB 1322 is a critical next step.
Law enforcement undoubtedly has a key role in fighting child sex trafficking – when they find that 14-year-old victim, they must intervene and get her to a child welfare agency so she can receive intensive medical, mental health and supportive services to start recovering and breaking bonds with traffickers. Then the officers can finish the job by arresting traffickers and purchasers – the ones who really who belong in jail.
You can help ensure child sex trafficking victims receive the protection they need and are no longer treated as criminals. Submit a support letter to Governor Brown today via our CWDA website and increase awareness using Twitter. Join our Twitter storm (@CWDA_CA) today, September 6th from 10am to Noon (Pacific Time) along with our partners National Center for Youth Law (@ncyl_CSEC) and WestCoast Children’s Clinic (@westcoastccorg).
It’s time for California law to be unequivocal: There’s #NoSuchThing as a child prostitute.
Frank Mecca is the executive director of the County Welfare Director Association of California.