Protecting Kids from Sexual Exploitation
By Lou Fancher
The commercial sexual exploitation of children is an ugly, festering problem for the East Bay that many residents would prefer to ignore. Advocates for the minors and authorities appear to be taking the issue more seriously these days to elevate awareness of the plight of the victims.
While exact numbers on the human trafficking of kids for money are unknown, there have been recent arrests made in Bay Area sexual exploitation cases. For instance, in November, an Oakland woman was arrested on charges of prostituting a Berkeley 15-year-old girl to men for money after police linked her to the case following a 10-month investigation. The teenager had been reported missing as a runaway. And in August, there was a bust of a long-standing human trafficking operation based in Danville and San Ramon, the culmination of a 14-year investigation by San Ramon police, the Contra Costa district attorney’s office, and a multi-agency FBI task force.
“The issue is prevalent because 20—and I’ve heard as much as 40—percent of domestically trafficked victims go through Oakland, according to the U.S. Department of Justice,” said Falilah Bilal, executive director of MISSSEY, an Oakland-based service organization working to counter the commercial sexual exploitation of children. “That’s how intense it is here.”
FBI statistics identify San Francisco as third among the 13 highest child sex trafficking areas in the nation. “Because we’re a hub for adults coming to this area to buy children, we have a sickness,” Bilal said. “But there’s not a lot of good data. In 2012, the Department of Justice reported that 100,000 to 300,000 children were trafficked domestically. But that was 2012.”
Venus Rodriguez says she has seen it all: From 12-year-old children manipulated into selling their bodies by “Romeos” claiming to be their boyfriends to homeless or foster kids “falling through the cracks” and ending up exploited and suffering PTSD and other traumatic stress conditions. Rodriguez is the Bay Area program director for the global anti-slavery organization Not For Sale, and longtime Bay Area youth organizer who has led initiatives for MISSSEY, PUEBLO, the Center for Media Justice, and the Center for Young Women’s Development.
“Commercial sex takes minutes,” she said. “The impact can last years.”
Sex trafficking—that is, commercial sex induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform it is under age 18—occurs in Oakland 24/7, said Oakland Police Lt. Kevin Wiley. “It has expanded greatly due to social media, and for this reason, it is hard to detect upticks when major events come to the city,” wrote Wiley, who commands the department’s Youth and Family Services Division.
The OPD works with the Alameda County district attorney under the Human Exploitation and Trafficking Watch program, commonly known as H.E.A.T Watch. Aimed at training community members and groups to recognize and assist exploited youths, an ongoing “Dear John Letter” campaign allowing anonymous reporting of suspected trafficking is an effective element of outreach to stop the criminal activity, Wiley said.
Police officers receive training on human trafficking as mandated by Proposition 35, the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act initiative. Vice and child exploitation officers also provide training to field officers. Investigators who work the cases receive additional training. “Ideally, our efforts are to get all officers to engage in this problem,” Wiley said.
Rodriguez said the OPD’s program is a good one because it doesn’t criminalize the victims and the police are generally well informed.
“There’s no choice in this,” she said. “No girl wakes up in the morning thinking, ‘I want to be sexually abused by multiple men today.’ These are not child prostitutes; these are victims. This is poverty. They should not be criminalized.”
Nor should they be subject to family histories of abandonment, sexual or emotional abuse, foster care or school officials who look the other way or fail to recognize when girls and the few young boys caught in the trafficking web are targeted. Rodriguez was frequently abandoned by her mother, who suffered from drug addiction. Left with friends or at shelters, she entered the foster system at age 12 and eventually graduated from Clark Atlanta University. She returned to the Bay Area to assist in her mother’s rehabilitation.
For pimps, the bottom line is money, Rodriguez said. Drug sales are one-time transactions: a girl’s body can be sold multiple times in one night. Gang members are sometimes “sexed in” with a roll of the dice that determines how many girls they must pimp in 20 minutes in order to join. “Pimps use Internet, word of mouth,” she said. “I’ve seen them hand out flyers, hang out after events and solicit directly. We’ve seen posts on Craigslist.”
Experts say it’s impossible to provide specific tallies but generally agree that global sex trafficking is upward of a $99 billion dollar industry. NFS’s 2014 Impact Report says 43 percent of California human trafficking happens in the Bay Area.
Solutions come, but they don’t come easily, Rodriguez, Bilal, and Wiley agree. Wiley said the Oakland Unified School District’s staff training on the issue has furthered OPD efforts to detect at-risk kids. Even so, major needs remain. Top on his list are a safe house for rescued children who were subject to commercial sexual exploitation and a more aggressive high-risk victim program to identify children most likely to become victims.
Rodriguez believes employment is key. “Show them an opportunity; they’ll know they can get out of the trade,” she said. To reduce the organization’s reliance on grants and to model their mission, NFS has constructed a unique funding structure. “We create products. We use ideas that mesh service and business. We’re cultivating donors who are investors in businesses so we’re not dependent on restrictive grants that lead you off the path of a program.”
NFS oversees a work-readiness program for young women ages 18 to 24. As survivors of commercial sexually exploitation, they fall into a gap not typically served by youth services that are primarily aimed at people under age 18. The NFS program also provides four weeks of work-readiness training and life-skills coaching. Graduates are placed in paid, 12-week traineeships within a network of Bay Area businesses.
On an Amsterdam street in the Red Light District that is notorious for displaying women in windows, NFS has planned a public cafe. There, women will learn to make an NFS specialty soup and gain skills to work in jobs that don’t require selling their bodies for profit. In Thailand, jewelry and art made by children and women are sold in an NFS supported initiative. An organic farm in Romania offers women and girls both income and equally valuable business experience.
Advocates said more resources and coalescence between service organizations would help the situation in Oakland, too. When multiple organizations devoted to reducing domestic violence and sexual exploitation compete for the same crumbs of one pie, no one has enough money to be effective. “We need to think more meta about this,” Rodriguez said. “We need to work together.”
Bilal agreed. The OPD has told her that more than 80 percent of the purchasers of sex are not from Oakland but come from the region to Oakland because it is known as an incubator for the industry. “Being able to frame the problem around numbers of victims, you’re not going to be able to find the data,” she said. “It’s clear the grants and funding are great, but they’re just a beginning. We have to work together to use resources wisely.”
Looking to inspire participation that leads to solutions, Rodriguez said, “Girls are being abused, even killed. I want people to educate and to be angry, to not call me to ask what to do. I want people to take it on: give time, money, resources. Give of yourself.”
Bilal says commercial sexually exploited children organizations and law enforcement have arrived at a shared understanding on the issue and a primary task in addition to serving the victims is to educate the public. “Sexual exploitation is definitely an economic issue. It’s a moral issue. It’s violence against women and girls. It’s violence against the definition of men.”