Sex worker. Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons
Sex worker. Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons

Children who are sexually exploited often return to their pimps or traffickers, even when offered safe alternatives, county officials told the Board of Supervisors.

As part of a program being expanded countywide, sheriff’s deputies have been trained not to arrest children working the streets, but to connect them to county agencies and community-based organizations that can help.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell and other county officials have adopted the slogan, “There is no such thing as a child prostitute.”

The Los Angeles County Law Enforcement First Responder Protocol for Commercially Sexually Exploited Children began as a pilot program with sheriff’s Compton and Century stations and Long Beach Police Department. Last month, it was rolled out to the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th and Southeast divisions.

It is set to be expanded to include all Los Angeles County sheriff’s stations by August.

In its first 18 months of implementation, 81 youth have been “recovered” because of the protocol, according to Michelle Guymon, director of the Probation Department’s child sex trafficking unit.

However, “some of our AWOLs have increased after the initial (72-hour) time frame,” Supervisor Don Knabe said, before asking Guymon for an explanation Tuesday.

“There are a variety of triggers” and kids “go back to their exploiter out of love or out of fear of consequences if they don’t go back,” Guymon said.

Sometimes it is as simple as parents or others not understanding what they’ve been through. In other cases, kids are “distrustful of the system,” the probation director said.

Diane Iglesias, a senior deputy director with the Department of Children and Family Services, told the board that some children are ready to be helped and others aren’t interested.

“What we’ve learned is … the kids come to us from different stages in the chain,” Iglesias said.

It’s important to realize that each child has individual issues to manage, Iglesias said. At first, she told the board, “We thought there’s a magic pill and we will find it … They will be safe and we will save them.”

Finding permanent placements is also important, as children who have been sexually exploited don’t fare well in group homes.

“These kids want a family, they really want a family and group homes are not a family,” Guymon said.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas urged employees to be “creative, imaginative, yet substantive” in trying to find placements for the children.

“There is tremendously positive work going on that is saving the lives and changing the lives of these young people,” Ridley-Thomas said. “I do not believe that one-size-fits-all.”

The child-centered protocol will be rolled out to the balance of the Los Angeles Police Department and 46 independent law enforcement agencies over the next two years.

—City News Service

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