Los Angeles County’s efforts to support sexually exploited youth with services rather than leaving them to face criminal charges has changed the lives of hundreds of young people, according to a report released Monday.
“Over the last few years, more than 500 sexually exploited children have been recovered through collaborative efforts in L.A. County,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said. “This latest report from the county addressing the commercial sexual exploitation of young people lifts up the testimony of survivors and also makes clear how urgently needed these efforts are. Our mantra remains the same: `There is no such thing as a child prostitute.”’
Of the children “recovered” from a life of being trafficked for sex between 2014-19, the youngest was 11 and the average age of first recovery was about 16 years old, according to the report. Seventy percent were Black and 86% of victims had a prior referral to the county’s Department of Children and Family Services.
The study by the county and the National Center for Youth Law — titled “Building Bridges: How Los Angeles County Came Together to Support Children and Youth Impacted by Commercial Sexual Exploitation” — reflects on a decade-long fight against child sex trafficking.
In addition to providing intensive, specialized services and funding educational campaigns, the county has trained law enforcement personnel to recognize that minors soliciting sex are victims of trauma in need of care, not punishment. It has also created “safe zones” where children can proactively seek medical or other basic services.
Much of the county’s success has relied on working with exploited children to shape programs and services.
“Over our nearly decade-long partnership with the county, we have been fortunate to partner with the folks working directly with kids who have experienced exploitation, the leaders of local government and a group of survivor leaders. Because of their tenacity, creativity, courage and fortitude, Los Angeles has emerged as a true leader in the movement to address commercial sexual exploitation,” said Kate Walker Brown, director of the National Center for Youth Law’s Collaborative Responses to Commercial Sexual Exploitation Initiative. “And the changes in Los Angeles have not only improved responses for youth here but have and will continue to make an impact far beyond our county borders.”
Los Angeles County has been identified as one of the nation’s high intensity areas for the commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth. The report’s authors hope the study will offer a blueprint of a “care-first, trauma-informed” approach for other jurisdictions to follow.
The county’s efforts were spurred in large part by former county Supervisor Don Knabe, who was concerned about the concentration of sex trafficking in the Long Beach area. In 2010, 84% of all arrests of youth for prostitution-related charges were made in either the South Los Angeles or Long Beach area. The report includes a quote from Knabe.
“Never in my time in office have I heard of an issue as shocking and disturbing as what is happening to young girls right here in the streets of America,” he said. “A lot of people think human trafficking is happening over there in some third-world country, just as I did, but in fact, across the nation, communities are waking up to the fact that it is happening right here on our streets, in our neighborhoods.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn, who succeeded Knabe in representing the 4th District that includes Long Beach, said intervention has been successful.
“Los Angeles County has come a long way in its efforts to protect children from the abuse and trauma of sexual exploitation,” she said. “We have been able to improve our intervention strategies and identify the groups of young people who are (disproportionately) targeted, including members of the LGBTQ+ community. This report sheds light on the courageous work being done throughout our county and the impact this progress has had on victims and survivors.”
Children in foster care are also at higher risk of being exploited. They are often victims of trauma themselves, making them vulnerable, and child sex workers are encouraged by their pimps to recruit children from group homes, according to board documents.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said more remains to be done.
“Throughout Los Angeles County, there are hundreds of victims of commercial sex trafficking who fall prey to a vicious cycle of abuse and harm,” she said. “We must do more to protect these youth who are often the most vulnerable in our communities — especially those who are homeless, in the child welfare system, in juvenile justice facilities, or in personal crisis. This report and the work it highlights is another testament to the dedication and commitment of this county to address sex trafficking and support our young victims.”
The full report is available at lacounty.gov/human-trafficking/?utm_content=&utm_medium=email&utm_name=&utm_source=govdelivery&utm_term=. The county’s child protection hotline is 800-540-4000.