Children are being bought and sold right in our backyards. People assume sex and labor trafficking is only happening in other countries, but it has become a major criminal act and form of modern-day slavery in the United States. Los Angeles is in the top three of the ten worst child sex trafficking areas in California. Yet, most communities still fail to identify traffickers and exploited children.
Our children are being abused, and taken advantage of, and left helpless, homeless, and afraid. I think this billion dollar industry has been overlooked in the communities that are most affected by it. I question it being overlooked due to the lackluster efforts to inform those who have critical relationships with children. Parents, foster care, group homes, schools, health care facilities, and youth programs should all have a front row seat when it comes to saving our children but they are misinformed, unaware, and have been provided limited funding. Every day in Los Angeles County minors, mostly Black and Latino, are sold by gang members, boyfriends, and sexual predators in poor neighborhoods such as Long Beach, Compton, Watts, Lynwood, and Van Nuys, just to name a few.
As a social worker in the Masters program at USC, I am specially trained in child welfare and I have a long-standing involvement with at-risk youth. I’ve taken the opportunity to immerse myself in different communities. During that process I was a witness to young girls no more than 16 years-old walking the streets on Long Beach Boulevard, or what they call the “track.” After an hour passed, I counted 10 girls getting into cars and returning 15 to 20 minutes later, some in poor physical condition.
In several neighborhoods, I interviewed organizations and residents who mostly were unaware sex trafficking was in their neighborhood, or even what trafficking was. They were confused by the names “trafficking” and “trafficker.” When I changed the label to prostitution and pimp, they understood. The residents in that community made assumptions. “These girls want to be out here in the streets. They are prostitutes,” said a man who owns a local business in Compton. But there is no such thing as a child prostitute. The state of California says that a minor is too young to consent to sex. This way of thinking, that paints the child as the perpetrator, allows traffickers and buyers to take away the human rights of children.
The more I worked with this population of at-risk youth, the more I realized a few things. The sex trade lures in vulnerable minors and runaways, promising them lots of money, love, a place to live, modeling careers, and employment for immigrants. According to the District Attorney’s office, 120 minors are sold for sex annually in L.A. County. We can assume the numbers are higher, because there is difficulty in identifying traffickers and victims. This is due in part to minors being moved by their trafficker to different locations, and website advertisement hiding the solicitation of minors by advertising them as adult escorts.
I thought it was necessary to bring awareness to this issue and any legislation that will work with under-represented communities to save children in danger. As a social worker, I always say “If we want to address the problem, we need to know there is a problem, and the options we have to fix it.” The key to combating trafficking is twofold; one prosecuting sellers, buyers and all who are involved. Second, we need to create a platform for experts and survivors to educate the public, as their experience and expertise can shape training programs for intervention and prevention.
To start the conversation, I coordinated a Human Trafficking Awareness Symposium at USC, held March 29, 2015. The audience heard from experts like Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, head of the LAPD Human Trafficking unit Lt. Andre Dawson II, organizations such as CAST (The Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking) and Field Rep. Sabiha Kahn, from the Office of Dianne Feinstein who explained the S.140 Combat Human Trafficking Bill. This bill supports victims and mandates training and awareness. I am supportive of legislation that states a clear agenda, and allows people an opportunity to actively get involved.
Because there is a lack of awareness, victims are unaware of the resources they can receive, and families and caregivers lack the ability to prevent their child or someone else’s from this life. Victims and their families are losing everything during their experience, and survivors go untreated for long term mental and physical trauma such as depression, PTSD, drug and alcohol addiction, forced abortion, STD’s, and physical scars from branding.
Experts from the U.S Department of Justice tell us that 300,000 children are at risk of being trafficked and 30,000 die each year; within that number 80 percent are under the age of 24, and some as young as six. Children who are rescued and fortunate enough to escape need help, so it is important for businesses, families, communities, and political officials to understand what these victims need.Human Trafficking awareness and training saves lives. So I urge you to visit a training session in your community, drop in a symposium like the one recently at USC, and stay informed on legislation such as S.140.
You can also go to website www.state.gov/j/tip/id/help/ to see what you can do to help.
Human Trafficking is not just a political fight; it is our fight. There is a need for social change, and to take a stand. Now is the time to make these criminals aware that our children are not for sale.
Enika Fluellen is a Masters of Social Work Candidate 2017 at the University of Southern California School of Social WorkPosted - Copyright © 2022 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.