By Shirley Hawkins
The Empowerment Congress, founded by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, recently held a discussion about sex trafficking in Los Angeles County at the University of Southern California’s Taper Hall.
The sex trafficking of minors is a growing business not only in Southern California, but across the country.
The discussion was facilitated by Nola Brantley, co-founder and executive director of the survivor advocacy group MISSSEY. Joining her on the panel were Kim Biddle, chief executive officer, Saving Innocence; and Dr. Beverly “Bam” Crawford, pastor at Bible Enrichment Fellowship International Church.
Also on the panel were Emilio Mendoza, manager, Department of Children and Family Services, Multi Agency Response Unit; Commissioner Catherine Pratt, commissioner, Compton Juvenile Court; Los Angeles County Superior Court; Michelle Guymon, director of placement administrative services, Los Angeles County Probation Department; and D’Lita Miller, Southern California program director, CAS Research and Education.
Los Angeles has emerged as a top destination for human trafficking in the United States, and it has been determined that gangs are the major proponents of sex trafficking which has escalated into a $32 billion dollar business. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that 100,000 children in the United States are sold for sex each year.
The United Nations estimates that 27 million people are living in slavery around the world. In Los Angeles, an estimated 3,000 children are trafficked annually.
Ridley-Thomas recently led a march along Long Beach Blvd. from Compton to Lynwood to bring attention to human sex trafficking. “Every day, children as young as 12 are bought and sold by adult men,” Thomas said at the march. “We will shine a light on this despicable behavior. You, who come here days, nights, weekends, to buy these girls, we see you. And we will bring changes throughout Los Angeles County and the state of California.”
Concerned residents packed the auditorium to hear more about this issue that affects all income levels and socioeconomic status.
“It’s not a new issue,” Dr. Crawford pointed out. “We’re talking about our own back yard. Many of these girls were molested by their uncles and family members.”
“It’s happening everywhere,” Biddle said. “Most of these girls are being sold by the gangs.” Biddle added that gangs are opting to veer away from the drug trade because they have discovered that prostitution is more lucrative. “Police can confiscate a gang member’s dope, and he’s out of business. But if a gang member has got 4 or 5 girls working for him each night, he’s making 1.5 million a year, tax free. It’s a huge money making enterprise.”
“Our girls are recruited and sold in North Hollywood, South Los Angeles, Sepulveda, Long Beach and throughout the county and they are being held captive in high end and low end hotels,” Biddle continued. “I know of a girl who was held in a hotel for three months. It’s in all of our neighborhoods because there are men who buy our girls-it’s out there.”
Dr. Crawford blamed the popular culture that glorifies the image of hoes, pimps and players. “We have engineered a mentality in our children where they call each other bitches and hoes,” she pointed out. “We think it’s cute when our three- and four-year old girls are twerking with their bodies. We have to take responsibility in our own back yard.”
Mendoza said that DCFS is bombarded daily with calls about children in jeopardy. “We get 700 to 1,000 calls every week,” said Mendoza. “The underlying issue is that these children are not getting love and attention at home. There is a level of neglect, and it goes from one generation to the next. We see the trauma, we see these children broken down and disheveled and covered with marks and bruises. We must infuse these families with family services.”
Pratt said that cyberspace is playing a tremendous part in the sex trafficking trade. “They are putting these girls on Internet sites, like Craig’s List,” she said. “They are being exploited on the Internet.”
Miller said that there is no specific profile of adults who are sexually abusing children. ““They range from pastors, teachers, businessmen, even fathers. A lot of girls are sold by their own family members. It affects all socioeconomic backgrounds.”
Guymon said she recently went on a ride along in Hollywood to catch sexual predators. “They arrested an 89-year-old man with two canes,” she said.
“There are two types of traffickers,” said Biddle. “One is the trafficker who snatches minors off the street and they immediately turn very abusive and aggressive towards the victim. The other trafficker is the Casanova or the romancer. He will woo the girl through social media and Facebook. Then he slowly seduces the girl to gain her trust. He recruits the girl until she is brainwashed.
“She can’t see the red flags,” Biddle observed. “She thinks that this person’s controlling nature and jealously means he loves her. She falls in love with him and feels she has a bond with him, while he has her on auto-pilot. He feeds her and buys her clothes and she starts to feel indebted to him. The relationship ends in domestic violence and sexual assault.”
“Many of these girls suffer from depression and have not been properly diagnosed,” Crawford pointed out. “One of the problems is that these girls don’t trust authority. The church has to be a catalyst for families because these girls need therapy. The victims have been trained (by the pimps) not to trust the system.”
“We have to give them as much attention as the pimps do,” said Pratt, who said the juvenile court in Compton provides extra support and intense supervision for youths who appear in her courtroom.
“When children are on the run, we try to get them back into services,” said Guymon. “We do a lot of communication about prevention. They need love, attention, and a sense of balance.”
“We are seeking help from the F.B.I.,” said Mendoza. “Sexually exploited children are the most complex case load because it involves the mental and physical components as well as issues of abuse and abandonment. We are also working with community partners.”
A member of the F.B.I. who was in the audience said that the bureau is partnering with the Los Angeles Police Department to catch traffickers who are sexually exploiting minors. “These individuals will be receiving life sentences,” he maintained. “We’ll be able to give these pimps 25 years to life.”
Miller said that sex trafficking had personally affected her life. “Not only am I a survivor, I am the mother of a survivor,” she revealed. “Parents have to be educated and trained about the dangers their children could face. The enemy has the power when we are divided. We’re in a spiritual war, and we need to be focused on prayer and fasting.”
“Training and awareness are key,” Pratt added.