International Boulevard in Oakland has a reputation as a prime location for prostitution, and especially for the trafficking of minors. Now, local law enforcement and regional agencies are trying to change that: not just by tightening prosecution of pimps, but by providing new resources to the young victims who have been drawn into solicitation.
The Alameda County Juvenile Hall is in the planning stages of creating a girl’s camp for victims of sexual exploitation and other at-risk youth. Esa Ehmen-Krause, the deputy chief probation officer at Juvenile Hall, says the plan is to convert some vacant detention units into a safe harbor for girls who need a stable, supportive environment. If successful, the camp would be transferred to a new building that could house as many as 30 minors. Judges would refer girls to the camp if they cannot return home or go to a group home.
The girl’s camp would be the latest step for the city in confronting the problem of sexual exploitation. Pat Mims, a program director at Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR), notes that most girls who are found soliciting are taken to Juvenile Hall.
“We don’t have a better way of holding the kids long enough for them to get a medical exam,” says Mims. He says that sending the girls to juvenile hall is a ‘one-stop-shop,’ that gives counselors and medical staff a chance to help.
But other advocacy groups have expressed concern that the arrest can further traumatize the girls, and also results in a police record – while not sufficiently targeting the pimps.
Venus Rodriguez, a direct services manager at MISSEY (Motivating Inspiring Supporting and Servicing Sexually Exploited Youth), which provides case management and mentorship programs, have long pushed Oakland police to change their policy.
“We don’t agree with arresting first,” Rodriguez says.
A report released in September by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council advised federal, state, and municipal jurisdictions to not arrest and prosecute teens accused of prostitution. The law recognizes that minors can be victims of sexual exploitation, but at the same time makes clear that it is a crime for minors to prostitute.
Ehmen-Krause says that although the camp will be in a detention center, the goal is to retrofit the space to make it feel comfortable. Locks have been removed and plans to install washing machines and furniture are underway. The goal is to create an environment where girls can learn to be independent. Counseling, food preparation classes, and schooling would be available.
“It’s a little more secure without being incarcerated,” Krause says who is working on staffing and other challenges needed to make the new center a reality.
But Rodriguez is still unsure about the success of the proposed girl’s camp. If the goal is to teach girls about healthy relationships and how to live independently, she wonders, “How does that work in a lock up facility?”
Both MISSEY and OPD have expressed an interest in creating a high school curriculum that teaches students and teachers to recognize possible red flags so girls do not end up in juvenile hall in the first place.
Holly Joshi, the chief of staff of interim police Chief Sean Whent and a former supervisor of the Child Exploitation Unit, explains that Oakland is “a victim-rich environment”: the epicenter of a trafficking triangle between San Francisco & Contra Costa counties where the majority of victims are 13 to 15 years old.
Human trafficking is now the fastest growing criminal industry, beating out even drug dealing, according to H.E.A.T., the Alameda County Human Exploitation and Trafficking unit.
Alameda County alone prosecutes 46% of sexual exploitation cases in California – a number that reflects both the area’s high trafficking rates and its aggressive policing of those cases.
The Oakland Police Department has had a unit specifically dedicated to investigating human trafficking for the past 10 years, and two years ago began partnering with an FBI task force working in Alameda County. The group also collaborates with BAWAR to provide help to exploited children.
When OPD officers go on a field operation, a BAWAR representative is always present, in case they find minors soliciting. BAWAR gives the girls water, food, warm clothes and lets them know that they are going to be with them through the entire process. If the girl is taken to juvenile hall the next morning, a BAWAR representative goes along.
Joshi notes that the relationship created with the pimp often mimics a family structure, and can be hard to break. The trauma experienced by the victim even before they are forced to solicit skews their view on healthy relationships.
In 2012, As many as 41% of sexually exploited minors came from foster care or group homes in Alameda County, according to CASRE, a human rights organization. About 61% experienced sexual assault before they found themselves soliciting on the streets.
Breaking the bond between the girls and their exploiter is a priority for law enforcement and advocacy groups, especially since it is hard for some girls to see themselves as victims.
“If she doesn’t believe she’s a victim, she runs back to her pimp,” said Holly Joshi.
Joshi recalls a case rom 2009, in which a girl was caught soliciting on the streets but wasn’t arrested, in accordance with OPD policy at the time. Instead, law enforcement called the girl’s mother and she was returned to her home. Three days later, she left home again, and a week later was found murdered by her pimp.
Joshi and BAWAR hope that the new hall will help prevent cases like this, by providing police and prosecutors with more alternatives. “It’s a great start,” Rodriguez says. “Hopefully this could be a model.”