It’s one thing to debate whether prostitution — an adult’s consensual choice to provide sexual services for money — should be legal. But the enslavement and sexual exploitation of children for profit is an entirely different issue.
Kim Biddle, who hails from Orange County and took her Master’s in Social Work from USC, first came face to face with sex trafficking of children while working for the International Justice Mission in Thailand and Cambodia. But eventually she learned that such problems are far from confined to the Third World.
“Through that work I realized how predominant a problem it is in the United States — and that a lot of organizations, funding, and initiatives/policy were not really focused on it in our own country and our own children,” she says. “And so I felt compelled to be a voice for the voiceless here.”
Biddle’s “here” is not just the U.S. in general, but Southern California in particular, which she labels as one of the top three hubs for DMST. “Because of [the area's] diversity, it’s able to hide people well,” she says. “[…] And there’s a lot of money, a lot of events. It’s definitely a hot spot […] and a prime place to recruit children.”
So it was that in 2010 Biddle founded Saving Innocence, a nonprofit organization with a mission “To rescue and restore child victims of sex trafficking through strategic partnerships with local law enforcement, social service providers, and schools, while mobilizing communities to prevent abuse and increase neighborhood safety.”
Later that year Michelle Guymon and Hania Cardenas of the L.A. County Probation Department were becoming aware of DMST through their work with the Interagency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, work that opened their eyes to this lesser-known side of the sex industry in the U.S.
“We’ve always had these kids in our system,” Guymon says. “And I — like everyone else — just saw these as kids who chose to be involved in prostitution. To me, it was just another kid who came in with a specific crime. I never really thought of them as being sexually exploited. […] One of my not-so-proud moments [in talking with the girls was how] I always focused on their sexual-abuse history as why they were working the streets. It never even occurred to me that they were being sexually exploited [in the present tense]. […] Over the last 18 months it’s been my ‘a-ha’ moment about changing the way we see kids who have been arrested for a prostitution.”
It was through the efforts of Guymon and Cardenas that Supervisor Don Knabe became aware of DMST.
“These two gals out of Probation have just done an incredible job of putting this whole thing together,” Knabe says. “I was shocked when I got this briefing, ’cause I thought, you know, ‘Maybe that happens in some other country or something, but not here in Southern California.”
The Probation Department, along with the Juvenile Justice Court, applied for and received three one-year grants from the California Standards Authority, which will provide over $1 million to combat DMST and help survivors. With the funds L.A. County has already opened a new courtroom dedicated to sex-trafficking issues — “to help make sure these kids don’t just get their hands slapped and go back out there and get pimped away by these thugs again,” says Knabe.
The grants have also enabled the County to contract Saving Innocence, a move Biddle says will help to create “a collaborative effort with local FBI and LAPD.” And much of that effort will focus on training local law-enforcement personnel to process the problem.
“Most dispatchers at 911 would not know what [human] trafficking is,” Biddle says. “Most of the dispatchers at the Department of Children and Family Services wouldn’t know what trafficking is. I’ve had people try to call and report child abuse because they’ve seen a child being prostituted out, and [the dispatchers] don’t know how to handle that, because in these systems these kids have been improperly categorized as delinquent, runaway youth. And yeah, they obviously have left home — whether that was by kidnapping or coercion — but these are kids that have been brainwashed, they’ve been tortured, they’ve been raped; they’re being forced to sell themselves between five and 20 times a night to strange men beginning at age of 11 years old. In those circumstances an adult is not going to be able to function properly, much less a child, whose brain isn’t as developmentally capable. […] If you were to call 911 and say, ‘There’s an 8-year-old on the side of the street,’ they would probably send somebody to check it out. But if you’re saying [that a prostitute] looks a little young to be out there, they’re just not going to respond in the correct way. They just don’t understand the dynamics of human trafficking.”
“People see these as kids prostitutes,” Guymon agrees. “If you don’t change people’s awareness, things won’t change. […] With our kids, we arrest the ‘prostitute,’ and we don’t go looking for anybody. Because on some level we think our job is done.”
Of the 300 people who Guymon has trained about the problem in Southern California, “There hasn’t been one of them that walked away from that saying, ‘I knew that.'”
One of the facts that most don’t know: the average age of entry into the sex-trafficking world for a child forced to sell herself on the street is 12. “I refuse to believe any 12-year-old has grown up wanting to be a prostitute,” Guymon says.
“Obviously most of these kids have very, very low self-esteem,” Knabe says. “These pimps come out, basically tell them they love them — they’ve never heard that before — and then force them to sell their bodies. […] It’s horrific to think that these vile pimps and scumbags do that to these young women.”
Biddle points out that it’s not just law enforcement that needs to be retooled, it’s also the judicial system.
Continue reading at Long Beach Post.