Oakland Local, a web site run by BlogHer Contributing Editor Susan Mernit, is running an original investigative series on youth sex trafficking in the Bay area. This story is reposted from that series at Oakland Local. Here are part one and part two of the series.
Recession slices with a double-edged sword into efforts to rescue young victims of sex trafficking from the streets. On the one hand, joblessness and foreclosures at levels higher than have been seen in a generation are pounding families, bringing out stresses and conflicts that cause youth to run away.
On the other hand, the recession has taken away resources to help troubled and homeless youth –- as well as reduced resources for arresting traffickers.
In Oakland and Berkeley, youth shelters report a record number of clients. The Youth Engagement, Advocacy and Housing (YEAH!) shelter in downtown Berkeley reported that every night during this November-to-May season it has had more kids line up at its doors than in any previous year. Administrators attributed this to the recession.
"Some youth just cannot stay with families anymore because the family can't afford it or there are way more people in the household -- extended families living together -- and that raises the stress level at home," YEAH! Director Sharon Hawkins Leyden said about the record number of local homeless youth she is seeing.
California's Child Welfare Services endured a $133 million cut for the current fiscal year in state funds and matching federal grants, a loss of about 10 percent of its budget even as the number of poor children needing its services grows. CalWORKS welfare-to-work grants for families with children have been cut 15 percent for the typical recipient, and the Emancipated Foster Youth Stipend totally eliminated thanks to California's current budget crisis. Meanwhile, the state's education budget was slashed by $5.4 billion for the current school year. Schools have fewer guidance counselors, coaches and teachers. Cities have fewer youth shelters and recreation programs.
Some group homes have been closed, such as the 32-bed Kairos House in East Oakland for at-risk teens. Programs that keep kids from the streets (everything from school sports to community programs) have been on the chopping block across the state.
Recession, Internet Make Police Job Harder
Police budgets have also shrunk. Oakland Police Lt. Kevin Wiley said the department's Vice and Child Exploitation Unit is now operated entirely from grants, so he has to keep applying for grants to keep it going.
Vice Unit Investigator Jim Saleda, trolling the streets to arrest traffickers and rescue girls, said he knows firsthand the frustration of fewer resources."We are very limited in the work we can do, it drives me crazy," he said. "The feds, the city, the state, everybody is broke."
"If we had more resources, we would do more sweeps. We'd have decoys. You need decoys to catch johns and you need more UCs (undercovers) to catch pimps," Saleda said.
Two years ago, before its budget was severely cut, the Oakland police deployed undercover officers to pose as prostitutes. "We'd get two or three pimps a night" as well as 30 to 40 johns, Saleda said.
The Internet has also made catching and arresting johns and pimps much more difficult. Deals are made out of sight on laptops and cell phones. Both parties then just show up at prearranged meeting spots.
Wiley said, when the police scan online classifieds on Craigslist and the escort service site My Redbook, they sometimes find 50 to 100 individuals advertised from the Bay Area who look like teenagers -- even though they are described as adults. With cell phones, a john can call up a number on the advertisement and "have a girl delivered."
"It is very hard to catch up with this" when technology has made the crime so easy, Wiley said.
California Law Has Not Helped
Amid these challenges brought by economics, California's weak laws have not helped.
The state's human trafficking statute, AB 236.1, requires prosecutors to show that force or coercion were used to prove that trafficking occurred even for minors. State Assemblyman Sandre Swanson (D-Oakland), working with Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Eshraghi Bock, has drafted legislation AB 2319 to amend that statute to eliminate the need to show force or coercion. On April 13, the bill won the endorsement of the Public Safety Committee.
Pimps usually persuade victims that they will be loved and cared for, or otherwise emotionally manipulate victims to do as they say. So it is very hard to prove force and coercion, Bock said. Victims often do not even realize they are victims.
"These girls think the pimps are their boyfriends. They are looking for love in all the wrong places," she said. "Our law does not reflect what is going on."
She described a trial of a pimp in which the plaintiff (a girl who had been allegedly kidnapped and raped twice by her trafficker) decided to change her allegations right on the witness stand -- while her pimp (the defendant) gazed at her with loving eyes. The girl interrupted the court session to say that the first time she was raped, but the second time she consented.
Legal Strategies to Convict Pimps
To prosecute traffickers despite the weak language in the trafficking statute, Bock's department, Alameda County's Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit, has used kidnapping and sexual assault statutes to win many of the 110 convictions against pimps it has secured over the last four-and-a-half years.
On April 2, the trafficking unit won in court and convicted Oakland pimp Vincent Turner of seven felony counts including kidnapping, rape and trafficking, after he kidnapped two girls (ages 15 and 16) from the streets of Oakland and brought them to Stockton, Calif., to work on the streets as prostitutes.
Prosecutors said Turner ordered them to earn their freedom by turning tricks, saying they had to bring in more than $1,000 each to win their freedom. A jury found him guilty of seven felony counts; he is scheduled to be sentenced June 25 in Superior Court in Alameda County. He faces 15 years to life in prison.
"Pimps are the worst kind of predators," said Saleda, the police investigator, who worked on the case that resulted in Turner's conviction. "They abuse the girls and then send them out for other people to abuse them." He said Turner also chased the girls with pit bull dogs.
"The Abolitionist Movement of Our Time"
There are more criminals like Turner out there, and there are many more young girls falling prey at a time when the economy and rough circumstances are leading so many youth to depend on a street economy to survive.
"These are kids who have no one and no where to go," said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley after announcing Turner's conviction. O'Malley has steered resources toward the conviction of traffickers and toward providing resources for children who are victims. "We've set out on a mission," she said, to rescue these kids and convict perpetrators and engage the community.
Until California has money to appropriate to recreation and diversion programs for youth, not to mention better schools, the problem will continue. Young, lost girls with few caring adults in their lives will be lured into moments of fantasy with a "boyfriend" who turns out to be a pimp. From there, they might turn into lifelong prostitutes or fall victim to violent crime.
"This is slavery," said Kathy Wilson of New Day for Children, a faith-based organization that is raising money to support a safehouse for kids who have been commercially sexually exploited. "This is not like slavery, it is slavery."
"How many times looking at history have we wondered what other generations did to combat something -- like slavery in this country 200 years ago, or the Holocaust in Europe. We like to think we would have been with the Underground Railroad or rescued Jews by hiding them in our homes," Wilson said.
"Well it is our turn now. This is the abolitionist movement of our time."
Oakland Local's investigation into youth sex trafficking in Oakland was made possible by a generous grant from the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism.
We also would like to thank Robert Rosenthal and California Watch for their support -- as well as our reporters Barbara Grady and Sarah Terry-Cobo, and photographer Alison Yin -- for their amazing work.
Support more independent quality reporting like this! Please donate to Oakland Local on Spot.us. We are seeking additional support for continued coverage.
More from entertainment