In recent years Long Beach has had the sad distinction of being among Los Angeles cities with the highest number of arrests of minors engaged in sex trafficking. But in 2014, not a single minor was arrested for prostitution by the Long Beach Police Department.
Thanks to a groundbreaking approach by LBPD, more youth detained by police are now being connected to services instead of being sent to jail.
“[Law enforcement] initially viewed the issue as a choice [minors] were making, no matter what age they were,” explains LBPD Lt. Dan Pratt. “We got our heads together and realized this wasn’t a choice … In fact, no juvenile can legally make the choice to be a prostitute.”
Last August LBPD became one of the first law enforcement agencies in the country to begin using the First Responder Protocol for CSEC (Commercially Sexually Exploited Children).
The protocol outlines a coordinated response for how to serve CSEC within the first 72 hours, with the goal of assessing the extent and nature of their exploitation, connecting them to needed services and avoiding arrest or detention.
The LBPD is “leading the nation on this issue,” says Adam Anderson, executive director of Kingdom Causes, the lead agency for the Long Beach Human Trafficking Task Force. Created in 2012, the task force is comprised of local service providers working to assist victims of human trafficking.
There were 164 arrests of minors for prostitution last year in Los Angeles County, according to Michelle Guymon, director of the Child Trafficking Unit with L.A. County Probation. The last time a minor was arrested for prostitution in Long Beach was in late 2012, says Pratt, who notes LBPD had begun moving in this direction prior to adopting the First Responder Protocol.
Departments across the county are now looking to follow Long Beach’s lead in adopting the protocol. Two – Compton Sheriff’s Station and Century Sheriff’s Station – have already done so.
Pratt sits on the LBPD human trafficking team and is also a part of the Human Trafficking Task Force, which recently published a resource guide of about 50 organizations that focus on helping trafficking victims, providing legal aid, counseling, mental health services and access to shelter and other needs.
One of those organizations is Families Against Sex Trafficking, or FAST. Founder D’Lita Miller, a survivor of trafficking herself, says thanks to the First Responder Protocol LBPD has come a long way from how it previously handled CSEC.
“They were arrested and treated like criminals,” she explains. “Getting criminal records, getting talked down to, a lot of victimization like they experienced with their trafficker.” Adds Miller, “It was a horrible time.”
Miller says before adopting the protocol minors would often be asked to testify against their pimps in court while dressed in prison uniforms. Others would be released from detention only to be placed back in homes where they were vulnerable to being sexually abused or trafficked again.
Under the First Responder Protocol, once a minor is identified as a victim of trafficking they are connected to county agencies or community based organizations. These groups provide services that help prevent youth from being trafficked again.
According to a county report, there were 32 minors identified by LBPD as being involved in sex trafficking in the first nine months after the protocol was adopted. Of them, 65 percent remained in a home or other placement, while 12 percent were detained on other warrants. The others were returned to their counties or states of origin.
Still, while the First Responder Protocol has proven effective in Long Beach sentencing laws in all 50 states continue to criminalize minors engaged in prostitution.
Malika Saada Saar is the executive director of the Washington D.C. based Rights4Girls. Earlier this year the group launched the No Such Thing campaign, which aims to end the arrest and criminalization of children for prostitution.
“In California and almost every other state, trafficked kids – the majority of them Black and Brown – are contemplated and treated as criminals,” says Saada Saar, “when in fact they have been subjected to repeated commercial rape.”
She says the name of the campaign is meant to highlight the fact that “there is no such thing as a child prostitute, there are only victims and survivors of child rape.”
Rights4Girls is also circulating an online petition in conjunction with the campaign urging the Associated Press to replace the term “Child Prostitute” – and other variations, including “juvenile prostitute” or “child sex worker” – in its reporting with “victims” or “survivors.”
Saada Saar says the effort is part of attempts to change “entrenched narratives around how we understand the sexual victimization of low-income Black and Brown” youth.
“It is time to shift the paradigm,” says Saada Saar.
L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis agrees. “We have to do a better job of somehow getting this out to the community … everyone has to be vigilant about reporting this and speaking out.”
Solis says girls as young as 10-years-old have been trafficked in her district. And while she acknowledges the progress made in helping trafficking victims, she stresses more needs to be done.
“I don’t think we’ve begun to scratch the surface,” says Solis.
She notes that one of her main priorities going forward is making sure there are adequate resources for victims and survivors where, “for maybe six months or a year they can go through wraparound services, rehabilitation, and get all the support that they need.”