Bay Area turns up the HEAT on underage prostitution
on November 11, 2010
At nighttime along Oakland’s International Boulevard, dozens of teenage girls are working the track—and there’s nothing athletic about it. “The Track” is the street nickname for the epicenter of underage prostitution in Oakland, where girls well under the age of eighteen strut down the street in platform heels and mini dresses while predatory pimps wait in cars around the corner.
Just a few blocks away at the Oakland Museum of California, more than 200 law enforcement officials, advocates and lawmakers gathered Wednesday to announce the next steps of the Human Exploitation and Trafficking (HEAT) Watch program. Having garnered national attention over the last few years and recently received a $300,000 two-year federal grant, HEAT Watch is now being expanded. As the new HEAT Coalition, agencies in the nine counties through out the Bay Area will be collaborating to combat the sex trafficking of minors—including the kind of under-aged prostitution that goes on at “The Track.”
“This is a blueprint for other communities to combat exploitation in their neighborhoods,” said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, whose office has spearheaded the initiative. “We extend an invitation to our surrounding counties to join our local regional and national efforts.”
Under the umbrella of the Bay Area HEAT Coalition, police departments from Richmond and Fremont, and agencies like the Dream Catcher and MISSSEY, will provide cross-services and safe environments to support sexually exploited youth. The goals of HEAT, O’Malley explained, are to work with a diverse range of partners to indentify, intervene in, investigate and prosecute child sexual exploitation cases.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that some 300,000 American children are at risk of being forced into prostitution. Oakland has been hit especially hard. “We are at ground zero of an international crisis,” said Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Bock. “It takes a village to rescue a child and prosecute a trafficker.”
O’Malley formed the HEAT Unit in 2005 prior to the passage of California’s Human Trafficking Statute, which enables law enforcement to imprison a person convicted of forcing another into labor for up to eight years. The HEAT Unit also prosecutes traffickers under traditional pimping, sexual assault and kidnapping law, which can carry a life sentence. Since 2006, HEAT Watch has reported that 177 defendants were charged with human trafficking, with 116 convicted.
“I am very proud of the fact that we were leaders at a time when people didn’t pay attention to these issues,” O’Malley said.
A vital component of HEAT Watch is recognizing that children who are exploited and trafficked are not criminals themselves. “For five years we have been fighting to shatter the perception of children as prostitutes and criminals undeserving of protection,” O’Malley said. “These young people are victims of child abuse.” Acknowledging their victimization shifts responsibility to the traffickers—pimps, buyers and facilitators—who engage in sex with children.
Essential services, including case management, crisis counseling and legal advocacy, will be provided from point of first contact or at a social service agency to continue through the court process and beyond.
The HEAT Watch program is also creating a database to help keep track of victims and follow what happens to them. The HEAT Watch tip line, 510-208-4959, and email address, HEATWatch-DA@scgov.org, have been launched for reporting suspected child commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
“I am committed to sharing the expertise of the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office in order to get the job done,” O’Malley said, “and end this least-recognized form of child abuse in our country.”
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