In Alameda, Hypotheticals Draw Out Realities of Serving Trafficked Kids

Last week, the WestCoast Children’s Clinic (WCC) hosted an event on child sex trafficking that harkened back to a 1970s approach to policy analysis.

At “We Can Do Better: Improving our Response to Child Sex Trafficking in Alameda County,” panelists were given a hypothetical case and were then asked how their organizations, courts or government agencies would respond.

On the panel:

  • Judges Bobbe Bridge and Rhonda Burgess
  • Leslie Heimov, Executive Director of Children’s Law Center
  • Michelle Love, Director of Alameda County Social Services, Division of Children and Family Services
  • Jennifer Madden, Deputy District Attorney of Alameda County
  • Aisha Mays, Family Physician at Native American Health Center, School Based Health Centers
  • Pat Mims, Sexually Exploited Minors Program Coordinator at Bay Area Women Against Rape
  • Adela Rodarte, Transition Age Youth Services Coordinator at WestCoast Children’s Clinic
  • Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, Survivor Leader and Advocate

The panel went through the process of finding and arresting 15-year-old Yvonne, a young woman who had been flagging down cars in Oakland in the middle of the night, and Keisha, a girl who has visited her school’s health center four times this school year to test for a sexually transmitted disease.

In Oakland presently there are estimated to be approximately 100 girls working the streets as prostitutes each night, otherwise known as commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC). Some national estimates put the number of children involved in the sex trade as high as 300,000.

One of the largest issues brought up throughout the conference, was that while the advocates and the social workers were adamant to treat her like a victim and not a criminal, there was no other place to house her but juvenile hall, keeping her detained for her own safety.

“In terms of places in Alameda County, there aren’t places where these girls will be safe. They’ve already run away from the foster homes and the group homes,” said Burgess, who estimated that “99 percent” of the girls are forced to go to a detention facility.

“Sometimes you can’t get her attention” without using detention, said District Attorney Madden. “She’s caught up in the game out there. She might not realize she’s even being exploited.”

With Keisha, the girl who has been tested four times in six months for STDs at her school’s health center, the most challenging aspect with her case is that child welfare services cannot get involved because it is a third-party abuser. In California, if abuse is not coming directly from someone in the home, child welfare agencies do not have an obligation to help.

The response from child welfare agencies is cold, noted Mays, who is a family physician at the Native American Health Center. “They’ll just say, ‘We can refer you to counseling or a shelter. Maybe your mom can take you.”

As Rodarte explains, “Child Welfare can’t take it on. There are no appropriate responses for third-party abusers.”

Panelists agreed that the only way to truly combat the larger issue was shifting the cultural lens of how we view sexually exploited children, and the people who pay to have sex with them.

“Our policies, practices and attitudes reflect a belief that young people are choosing to be prostitutes,” said WCC Executive Director Stacey Katz. “What is happening to them is viewed and treated as a crime committed by children, rather than a crime against them.”

There is also the startling fact that it is a “issues of poverty, race, class, and childhood abuse can make a life on the streets less of a choice than a foregone conclusion,” Katz said, along with a history of being in the child welfare system. According to the Child Welfare Council, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of children who classify as CSEC have been or are currently involved with child welfare.

Many of these girls are recruited within 48 hours after running away from foster families and/or group homes, said Katz.

Pettigrew, an advocate and trafficking survivor, discussed the mindset these hypothetical girls would have when locked up.

“She’s in juvie, she doesn’t want to be there, she’s hungry and cold and she has just been pulled out of her element,” Pettigrew said. “All she’s thinking about is, ‘Why am I the one who’s been arrested and not the guys who are buying me?”

“We need to shift the language from ‘johns’ and ‘janes’ to customers of child sex,” said Judge Bridge. “These are symptoms of a greater problem. There can be multi-generational trauma with children and families, and it is not our place to blame the families. We need to start blaming the people who buy and sell children.”

Teddy Lederer is a reporter for the Chronicle of Social Change.

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