Once, when I was visiting Children of the Night almost 10 years ago, I saw a 13-year-old come in with breast implants. She looked around the center, then walked onto the back patio where she saw a pet rabbit. She asked if she could hold it. As she cradled the bunny with one arm, she put her thumb in her mouth and rocked the rabbit back and forth. It was difficult to believe that someone had been pimping this child just a few days before. Sad and tragic what humans do to young women. Below is my most recent story about how politicians all want to help sex trafficked victims, but provide no funding on how to rehabilitate these teens and adults in the long term (From the series Prostitution in Los Angeles: Daily News, May 20, 2014):
The children come through the doors with blackened eyes and broken teeth.
Some are branded; gang members tattoo their marks on a girl’s jawbone to show she’s their property. Once, a 13-year-old was brought in with breast implants. Her pimp’s idea.
Lois Lee has seen all kinds of youth walk into Children of the Night, the organization she founded 35 years ago, first as a drop-in center in Hollywood, then as a 24-bed residential shelter in Van Nuys for prostitution’s youngest victims. It is one of only a handful of its kind in the nation.
In the early days, law enforcement wasn’t prepared to deal properly with the youngest teens who were selling their bodies for money, Lee said. No one wanted to admit that adults were paying to have sex with 14-year-olds.
But in the last two years especially, the attitude toward children sold for sex has changed. The word “prostitute” has been replaced with the phrase “sex traffic survivor.” Awareness has grown through billboard campaigns, marches down Los Angeles streets and government-backed task forces. And state legislators have introduced more bills that would penalize pimps with longer jail sentences and higher fines. But while Lee praises the increased awareness, the posters of doe-eyed children and proclamations to end sex trafficking still don’t translate into the kind of complex help and funding many youth and adults who have sex for money need.
“People only want to help the little children,” Lee said. “They don’t want to help my kids. My kids are teenagers who put earrings in places they don’t belong. Their favorite word starts with the letter F.”
Especially lacking are the number of residential facilities that provide specialized long-term care and rehabilitation. Those services include helping teens and young adults obtain high school diplomas, therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, and life skills that can help them live on their own. Of the 10 state and federal legislative bills proposed this year to combat sex trafficking, for example, only one directly addresses the need for government funding for long-term and residential services.
Lee runs Children of the Night through private funding. Children who come to the program are referred by police from across the nation.
There are relatively few other facilities around the country that provide similar services — and the numbers are hard to track, researchers say, because programs open and close, while others may offer help for sex-trafficked victims as just one of many services.
One study, in 2008 by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, found only four residential treatment centers in the United States for sex trafficked children with a total of 45 beds, including Children of the Night.
Another one, last year by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, found 33 residential programs nationwide with 682 beds that worked exclusively with trafficking victims. California had the most with nine residential programs offering 371 beds for victims.
“We need more services and shelters for juvenile and adult victims,” said Donna Hughes, a leading international researcher on human trafficking and professor of Gender and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Rhode Island. “We don’t have nearly the support for victims of trafficking that exist for victims of domestic violence.”
She said while there are experts who know how to work with victims of sex trafficking, their specialized knowledge may not be widely accessed among service providers. She too has noted the change in attitude for victims of “sex trafficking,” but not victims of “prostitution.” The terminology makes a big difference on funding.
“If people see the issue as one of prostitution, then they don’t want to give support for services,” she said. “Sex trafficking is called ‘modern-day slavery’ and the traffickers are seen as brutal criminals. Change those words to ‘prostitution and pimps’ and people assume that everyone involved is consenting to the activity. Prostitution and sex trafficking have different definitions, but in practice, they are often the same thing.”
Nearly 150 youth were arrested last year for prostitution in Los Angeles County and of those, 94 were from the Compton and Long Beach areas, county officials said. About 89 percent of those arrested were known to the foster care system.
“All counties currently lack capacity to provide enhanced supervision and support to protect victims through the regular foster care programs,” according to a February report by the County Welfare Directors Association of California to the state Senate Budget Committee. “Victims have immediate needs for clothing and safe shelter away from the abusive pimps and require long term services.”
The association says at least $20 million in state funding is need to establish an adequate infrastructure in California to raise awareness, increase prevention and provide long-term care. An additional $14 million annually would be needed to maintain such a program.
Long term residential homes continue to be a big issue for Los Angeles County, agreed Nick Ippolito, the children and social services deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe. Along with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Knabe has worked to raise awareness about the issue of sex trafficking across the county.
“I don’t want anybody to think we’re just putting up posters,” Ippolito said. “We are actively working to put those services in place.”