LOS ANGELES – County supervisors on Tuesday called for more protections for victims of child sex trafficking.
Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Don Knabe encouraged the Sheriff’s Department to avoid arresting victims of child sex trafficking or detain them with criminal or juvenile offenders.
A victim-centered approach that avoids arrest and detention and focuses on counseling and care has been piloted in Compton and Long Beach and on a limited basis by the Los Angeles Police Department, the supervisors said.
Nearly 70 percent of the 32 exploited children identified by the pilot program — none of whom were arrested — remain in stable circumstances, according to board documents. Several high-profile exploiters were also prosecuted as a result of the program.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell appears poised to implement it countywide.
A sheriff’s department spokesman said McDonnell would reach out to the department’s employees with a messaging campaign to make clear that “these victims are victims of rape” and “there is no such thing as a child prostitute.”
McDonnell on Wednesday participated in the national launch of the “No Such Thing As A Child Prostitute” campaign – an initiative addressing the commercialization of child rape and advocating for changes in how law enforcement interacts with at-risk young victims. In connection with this event, Sheriff McDonnell also sent the following message to all 18,000-plus LASD personnel:
As law enforcement professionals, effective and appropriate communication is critical in our day-to-day interaction with the communities we serve. Perceptions can often result from the language we use. The use of inappropriate terminology, whether intentional or inadvertent, can foster distrust, anger and resentment, and can also harm those whom we are committed to protect. We must be particularly sensitive to these concerns – and how individuals are “labeled” — when dealing with young victims of sex trafficking.
We know that the average age of a teen bought and sold for sex by traffickers and child molesters is between 12 and 14 years old. With the benefit of a recent $1.5 million federal grant, our Department will be building out a regional task force that will enable us to enhance efforts to combat human trafficking and the exploitation of young people in our community. Working with state, local and federal partners, we will not simply seek to dismantle criminal enterprises and bring to justice traffickers as well as individuals who create the demand that sustains these crimes, but we will also develop new approaches aimed at rescuing young victims and addressing their needs in a victim-centered way.
As all of us engage in this work, we must recognize the importance of law enforcement’s clear communication regarding who these victims truly are — they are child victims and survivors of rape. Portraying these vulnerable children as anything else fails to acknowledge the trauma and victimization they have endured and serves to cloud the role of the criminally involved offenders. While at times some have used the terms “child prostitute” or “underage prostitution” to describe victims of child rape, children cannot consent to sex. With this starting point in mind, I ask you all not simply to eliminate any use of these inappropriate terms, but also to encourage others to avoid this labeling of young victims.
Knabe said changing mindsets and vocabulary is a big part of solving the problem of child sex trafficking.
“Coordination of this effort also helps to bring the focus on the other side of it, which is the scumbag pimps and the johns,” Knabe said.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey has already said she doesn’t believe exploited children are criminals and has instituted a diversion program for girls under 18 that offers crisis intervention, sexual assault and mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment.
Kuehl and Knabe proposed that all minor victims of sex trafficking testifying in a court case be allowed to do so via closed-circuit video, rather than in open court. That option is currently available to minors 13 years old or younger.
They also asked that all witness-victims be connected to a victim’s advocate to help them access resources and keep them safe. The board’s vote was unanimous in favor of the proposals.
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