Hundreds of Trafficked Girls, Thousands of Child Welfare Referrals

In Los Angeles, 85 percent of the youth picked up by law enforcement in sex trafficking raids have a history with child protective services, according to a new report that provides details on how the county serves exploited youth in the wake of new California laws.

The Los Angeles County report offers a look at how the county is faring with the implementation of laws pertaining to the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). Researchers from California State University, Los Angeles and the National Center for Youth Law shared statistics and analysis of exploited girls and women being served through child welfare or probation.

In 2014, Los Angeles County implemented a new First Responder Protocol (FRP) to guide interactions between law enforcement and sexually exploited youth. The new system helps law enforcement identify trafficking victims and collaborate with other agencies to help those youth escape exploitation and heal from their trauma, while focusing on holding exploiters and buyers accountable.

Since then, 361 exploited children and teens have been “recovered” by law enforcement – meaning they were picked up but not arrested in the course of raids on adult traffickers. All but two of them are female, and 71 percent are black.

Of the recovered youth, 85 percent had a prior child welfare referral. There were a total of 3,255 child welfare referrals made for those youth, an average of more than 10 per child.

There were 441 arrests of exploiters and those purchasing sex from exploited minors in the first eight months of 2018. Task force decoys and targeted online messaging seek to discourage or apprehend would-be buyers.

The report also found that running away from group homes accounted for the vast majority of placement changes. Medium-size group homes, or those with between seven and 23 beds, had the lowest rates of runaways of all group home placements.

The data also indicates that exploited youth being served through the probation department are more often receiving specialized services than those being cared for through child welfare. Youth surveyed listed specialized social workers and probation officers as among the most helpful services; of the probation sample, 57 percent had a specialized officer, but only 3 percent of the child welfare sample had a specialized social worker. The probation CSEC sample was also more likely to be working through a special court, and have a CSEC advocate.

Historically, children and teens found engaging in sex work were often saddled with prostitution charges rather than being provided services or taken into protective custody. More recently, the paradigm has shifted to view these young people as victims rather than criminals.

In 2015, the California legislature passed a law which required county child welfare and probation agencies to create rules about how to identify and serve commercially sexually exploited children and at-risk children. A subsequent law the next year — Senate Bill 1322 — prohibited law enforcement officers from arresting minors for prostitution, and directed counties to create an alternative response from those agencies.

Human trafficking is a $150-billion-a-year global industry, one of the most profitable criminal activities just behind drug trafficking and currency counterfeiting. As many as 300,000 American children are involved each year, and the FBI has designated Los Angeles as one of the country’s main trafficking hubs.

Drawing from youth surveys, the report shared feedback on what youth found helpful and their opinions as to what services could be improved.

The CSEC youth surveyed expressed a preference for small, local placements and more access to see family, and the desire for group home staff to be consistent and have better training specifically around exploitation to improve rapport between staff and residents.

And more than just treatment for their trauma and help moving safely past it — they want a reason to keep pushing forward and fighting for their future.

As one young woman referred to as Jada put it, “Y’all should give the girls hope, like they have something to live for.”

Read the full report here.

Correction: This article originally misidentified the National Center for Youth Law as the National Youth Law Center. It has been updated to correct that error. 

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Sara Tiano
About Sara Tiano 55 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change