The Los Angeles County Department of Probation released a report Monday detailing its efforts over eight years to fight the commercial sexual exploitation of children, including many personal stories from survivors and probation officers.
Department officials said the problem continues even during the COVID-19 crisis and hopes that the lessons outlined in “All Hands on Deck: Identifying and Supporting Commercially Sexually Exploited Youth in the Juvenile Justice System” will serve as a tool kit for other jurisdictions across the country.
More than 26,000 county workers and community partners have been trained in a new protocol for helping, rather than arresting, sexually exploited minors.
“These kids amaze me — the fact that they get up every day and face the world, given what they’ve endured,” Tiffany Esqueda, a deputy probation officer wit the Child Trafficking Unit, is quoted as saying in the report.
CTU officers have lower caseloads than other probation employees so that they can devote more time to each child, meeting at least twice a month and checking in via phone, text or social media at least once every three days.
Officers help youth develop practical life skills, including interview preparation and budgeting. In addition to formal visits, deputy probation officers often attend important events like graduations, birthdays and baby showers.
“The best part of the job for me is continuing to have a relationship with my girls who are no longer on probation,” said Shantel Crum-Hill, another deputy probation officer in the CTU.
In 2010, 174 minors were arrested for prostitution. Of those, 92% were black and 84% were arrested in communities in South Los Angeles or the South Bay. More than half had prior histories with the county’s child welfare system.
The Board of Supervisors and probation officials then shifted the emphasis to seeing those children as victims and providing them with the long-term support needed to change their lives, seeking to eliminate the use of the term “child prostitute,” according to the report.
Some probation officers expected that once the arrests stopped, they wouldn’t have much of a role with youths who were being exploited. But many children already in probation custody began to disclose prior exploitation that hadn’t resulted in their arrest.
Getting kids to open up depends on close relationships and can happen in a variety of settings. Roughly 41% of the disclosures by more than 500 minors in juvenile hall between 2013-19 were made to probation officers, 32% to health care workers and 26% to mental health professionals, according to the report.
“I am proud of the CTU and how hard they work day and night to ensure each youth feels supported, cared for and empowered,” said Probation Chief Ray Leyva.
More supportive services, some designed to help heal unaddressed childhood sexual, physical or emotional abuse, has helped increase graduation rates among youth, according to the report.
“We want people to see the pretty picture in the end and the glamour when it’s all finished. The reality is there will always be a continuous rough draft that we are all working on to becoming more of who we are and achieving our great goals,” a survivor named Chelsea is quoted as saying on graduation day. “And today represents one of those great accomplishments.”
Survivors become advocates and mentors for other youth.
One such advocate was trafficked at 11 years old and left that life at 15 with support from a staff member at her group home.
Oree Freeman is quoted in the report as saying: “Ms. Woolfolk changed my life. She was more than just a probation officer. She taught me accountability, and she treated me with respect. She’s still in my life today — I can talk to her about anything.”
Now, working with the nonprofit organization Saving Innocence, Freeman said she goes into juvenile halls and gets to “be that person that I didn’t have when I was a kid. I’m not just this victim of sex trafficking. It’s only a part of my story, that’s all.”
Despite these efforts, demand for sex with underage children has spiked.
“As we move forward to take our next steps to better identify and support youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation, I hope agencies across the country can apply the lessons learned by L.A. County and apply them during this COVID-19 era and provide victims the services and ongoing support that they need,” said Michelle Guymon, who founded and leads the CTU.
“It has been very disheartening to see a spike in trafficking victims being sold on the streets of Los Angeles, but as a team, we will continue to be there for our youth who need our help,” she said.
Technology has facilitated the crime of child sex trafficking and the number of reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children of online photos and video of children being sexually abused is at record levels, according to an executive order issued by President Donald Trump in January and calling for a stronger federal response.
The full report by the Los Angeles County Probation Department can be found at probation.lacounty.gov/child-traffic-unit/.
>> Want to read more stories like this? Get our Free Daily Newsletters Here!Follow us: