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They pass by unrecognized. Sometimes they suddenly arrive in a neighborhood yet are only glimpsed occasionally by neighbors. For many of them, their mere existence is hinged on the stronghold placed over them by kidnappers, pimps and drug dealers. They are the near half-million missing and sexually exploited children who wander through our communities in anonymity, yet resemble the veritable “kid-next-door” regretably trapped in a nightmare of fear and abuse.

Safe Youth Zone Program

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decided to rebrand and expand its network of safe havens for victims of child sex trafficking. It’s not a new plan. Two decades ago county leaders launched the Safe House Program that would provide a temporary safe place (often a fire station) for any child facing a threatening situation with nowhere to run. The increase in sex trafficking has forced a change in how we protect these vulnerable children who have been stolen by criminals who sexually exploit them for money. If they try to escape their captor(s), they are often starved, beaten—even raped—in a brutal exercise of mind control that begins with love and kindness and ends in tragedy.

The Safe House Program is similar to the Safe Surrender Program, which allows mothers to surrender an infant that is no more than three days old to any county fire station or hospital (provided the infant shows no signs of abuse). Now a county team will work on identifying more facilities for what will be called the Los Angeles County Safe Youth Zone Program, and also help to design a protocol for assisting children and outlining plans for training county employees and educating residents on the warning signs of child sexual abuse.

Array of county agencies participate

“These kids are threatened with brutal abuse and violence against themselves and their families if they attempt to escape or do not make their quota,” said Supervisor Don Knabe. The lost, unloved children may have a place to go to begin a return to normalcy. Knabe said victims of child sex trafficking will be able to seek out a safe place to hide from their tormentor and be connected with vital services that, hopefully, will empower them to escape life on the streets.

“These children deserve a better and brighter future,” Knabe explained. “When we launched the Safe Housing Program 20 years ago we had no idea our children would need protection from monsters looking to turn them into prostitutes. Sadly, children are exposed to horrible situations, and at times, they have no family to turn to for help. Kids who are abused, lost, frightened or in danger on the streets often do not have a place within the community where they can safely run and hide. Now they won’t have to wait to be rescued by law enforcement. We can provide a safe, secure place for them and begin the process of returning them to their families.”

A bright yellow sign will indicate the safe house locations. When a young person is in trouble, they can seek out these locations throughout the county and be in a protected environment with necessary services to aid their physical and psychological needs.

Average age for entry is 13

“We’ve made significant strides to combat child sex trafficking of minors across our region and support the victims of this heinous crime, but there is still much more we can do,” Knabe said.

Among the county agencies expected to play a role in the Safe Zone Program are the Office of Child Protection, Department of Public Social Services, Department of Mental Health, Department of Public Health, Department of Health Services, Department of Children and Family Services, the Probation Department, the Sheriff’s Department, and the County Fire Department. A report is expected to be finalized in July and will highlight implementation of strategies, employee training, and public outreach to educate people about the Safe Youth Zone Program.

The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health reports that all children, whether they be male, female or transgender, from any background can be a target of sexual exploitation. The average age for entry is 13. The FBI has identified three of the nation’s 13 so-called “high-intensity” child prostitution areas as being the Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego metropolitan areas. The child sex trade is part of a growing human trafficking business—a worldwide billion-dollar industry—which, according to the state attorney general, is the second most profitable criminal enterprise behind drug trafficking.

The Board of Supervisors had set aside about $7 million to address child sex trafficking as part of its 2015-2016 budget. The funds are directed toward sex trafficking prevention initiatives, programs and services including a specialized court for trafficked children in the foster care system to help stabilize them and to provide comprehensive services (e.g. counseling, educational classes). A large percentage of children that have been identified as being trafficked are in the child welfare system. However, the old means of punishing the young people as sex offenders has given way to a new, specialized court system called STAR Court (Succeeding Through Achievement and Resilience). The unique youth court is reportedly only one component of a comprehensive approach to introducing the youth to specialized services and attention provided by counselors.

Laws for motel owners

The court features a hearing officer, county counsel, a child’s attorney, investigators and service providers who are each trained to recognize and understand the trauma, stages of change, and unique, personalized issues surrounding recovery for each child and the [high] probability of relapse. It is hoped that these measures will lead to better outcomes for the youth.

Motels within the county are often prime locations for the illegal sex trade. For about two years, motels that receive vouchers to house homeless persons must comply with new rules that prevent them from trafficking children on their premises. Motel owners must sign a contract stating that they will not participate in or allow any form of sex trafficking to take place in their facilities. Also, motel owners must affix a poster in a visible place with hotline information to report a possible human trafficking incident and for victims to receive help, allow law enforcement to check guest registries at-will, and take a training session on sex trafficking. The county spent about $4 million for vouchers in the first year of the project. District Attorney Jackie Lacey said the voucher program, aggressive prosecution of suspected traffickers, and the county diversion program have been successful methods in combating the under-age sex trade.

“Motions [like the voucher program] assist law enforcement officials looking for kids who are being enslaved by sex traffickers,” Lacey explained. “Signs posted in lobbies may also encourage enslaved minors or good Samaritans and bystanders to call the hotline to seek help and rescue these kids.”

Modern-day slavery

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) insists that human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. The organization defines sex trafficking as the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act (i.e. any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person) is induced by force, fraud, or coercion…” In 2013 Senators Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) helped to reauthorize the Combat Human Trafficking Act (formerly the Trafficking Victims Protection Act) which seeks to penalize adults who buy sex from trafficking victims and to strengthen victim’s rights. The act further ensures that federal law enforcement officials are properly trained to investigate and then prosecute would-be “Johns” or sex clients…and it makes a clear distinction between these persons and exploited women and, particularly, children.

The Department of Justice estimates that up to 83 percent of sex trafficking victims are American citizens, with the average victim first trafficked between the ages of 12 and 14 years. The FBI is training more investigators to lead and/or work with various law enforcement task forces on the state and county levels to put a more glaring spotlight on the underage sex industry. They operate a multi-agency Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team (including the Department of Justice, FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor) which has led to high-impact federal investigations and prosecutions. The Enhanced Collaborative Model to Combat Human Trafficking is another multi-agency task force that includes members from the U.S. Attorney’s office; local prosecutor’s office; federal, state and local law enforcement, and a community service provider with the goal of proactively identifying and recovering victims of human trafficking. As well, the FBI Human Trafficking Task Force program has established teams in field offices nationwide with the purpose of recovering victims and investigating and prosecuting alleged traffickers at both the state and federal levels.

Victims hidden from view

All of the aforementioned government agencies say that homeless runaway children are most at risk, as are children with a history of sexual abuse. With girls, it is often an older “boyfriend” or adult who is controlling the child’s life, although this scenario is present among abused boys. Victims are often hidden from view, often going unnoticed. Pimps and other exploiters will scout bus stations, arcades, malls and social networking sites to hone in on children who may appear to be runaways without money or job skills. Next, they’ll befriend the youth by showering them with affection (a ruse particularly effective with girls who may be attracted to shiny new electronic gadgets, the latest in fashion or simply the fact that an “older man” finds them attractive). The exploiter will make false promises of a “better life” which law enforcement says is an important recruitment tool.

At this point in their ordeal—sometimes as short as two weeks—most children are sent to the street to enter the sex trade with all money turned over to the pimp/trafficker. Once again, the pimp showers the child in love and kindness, done primarily to maintain a level of trust and loyalty. The manipulation tactics used by the exploiter ensures that the child will remain loyal, despite the acts of violence and severe victimization forced upon the victim. Regular beatings and other forms of mental “punishment” (i.e. psychological degradation) are used to guarantee obedience and to prevent escape.

Psychological impact on exploited child

Perpetrators of the child sex trade can be anyone, including family members, boyfriends or other trusted adults. Although exploiters often target children outside of their family, a family member may also prostitute a child. The county district attorney confirms that the majority of child abductions are committed by a mother, father, grandparent or other relative, yet few of these persons tend to enter a child into the sex trade and, more often, believe that they are better suited to care the for child…even though they have committed a felony punishable by up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The majority of such abductions are when a person unlawfully takes and withholds a child from his/her custodial parent, legal guardian or a person with legal visitation rights.

There is considerable psychological impact placed upon an exploited child. The county department of mental health reports that after a child has been abused and exploited by the pimp, he/she is usually left abandoned, traumatized and alone without support. Also, the victim may experience a range of emotional and psychological distress including: depression, isolation, thoughts of suicide, guilt, anxiety, anger control issues, difficulty forming positive relations with others, violent mood swings, and attention deficit/impulse control issues.

Tips to keep your child safe

The FBI reported in 2013 that minority children comprise about 65 percent of all non-family abductions. African American children make up 42 percent of that figure. Frequently, news coverage will focus on a missing White child (e.g. JonBenet Ramsey, Elizabeth Smart, Caylee Anthony) with many observers concluding that their skin color is the reason why there is such a disproportionate amount of media coverage. In 2010, researchers at Pace University in New York released a study comparing the proportions of race and gender from the news coverage of five television stations between 2005 and 2007 to official missing children statistics. The study revealed that Black missing children were significantly under-represented in television news coverage. The study argued that “such things as newsroom diversity, news operation routines, media ownership, and commercial motives of media contribute to the race-related media bias.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offers valuable safety tips for parents to help their little ones be less susceptible to kidnapping and any and all “stranger dangers”:

–Instruct children to travel with a friend, or better yet, a group of friends when riding their bicycle or walking to and from school or other destinations;

–If someone follows you on foot, get away as quickly as possible. Go to someone’s house that you know. If that’s not possible, run to other people;

–If someone is following you in a car, turn around and go in the opposite direction or take a path where a car cannot travel;

–Never leave school or any event with someone who makes you feel uncomfortable, and specifically do not ride in a car with them;

–If a stranger tells you that there is an emergency or that one of your family members (or a pet) has been injured, check immediately with your parents or adult guardian. This is a common trick used by many molesters and kidnappers. In this instance, parents should be cautious about any use of a child’s name on a backpack or jacket. Kid’s sometimes believe that a person cannot be a stranger if they know them by name.

For more information about safety tips for preventing childhood abductions, contact the Palmdale Sheriff’s at (661) 272-2400, Lancaster Sheriff’s at (661) 948-8466, visit www.missingkids.com, or www.lacrimestoppers.org.