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In Oakland, a center works to protect Cambodian girls from sexual exploitation

on December 14, 2011

On a Friday night in December, ten girls between the ages of 11 and 20 gathered in a warmly lit, living room-esque space at Oakland’s Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI) on International Boulevard. They sprawled throughout the room on couches, chairs, and pillows, silently watching Very Young Girls, a 2007 documentary about girls in New York City who were coerced by pimps into working as prostitutes.

CERI is a non-profit organization that provides mental health and social services to refugee and immigrant families, mostly Cambodians. All of these girls’ parents are Cambodian refugees, and they all live in high crime neighborhoods in the East Bay. Many of them know other girls—friends, former classmates—who have become involved in “the life,” a term for the underground world of prostitution.

“The Cambodian youth in Oakland is at risk,” said Mona Afary, the executive and clinical director of CERI, who facilitates, among other programs, a support group for young girls. This particular group started its work in July, 2011, through a contract with the Alameda County Behavioral Healthcare Services with the funding from Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act.

Mona Afary is the executive and clinical director of Oakland’s Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI).

Sgt. Holly Joshi of the Oakland Police Department’s vice and child exploitation unit said that her unit sees an average of 100 commercially sexually exploited minors each year. Underage girls make up ten to 20 percent of all prostitution arrests in Oakland, she said, but added that it’s hard to calculate the numbers of minors involved with sex trafficking because unless a girl or a pimp is caught, the crime goes unreported. With fewer officers and resources, the OPD has not had the capabilities of organizing stings to the extent they once did. Also, in this economic climate, Joshi pointed out, men might decide that pimping is more financially lucrative than selling drugs.

While it’s hard to find numbers regarding the ethnic breakdown for young girls who are being sexually exploited, Afary worries that this issue disproportionately affects Asian girls because some people perceive them to be “exotic.” She is also concerned that Cambodians in Oakland often live in high-crime, low-income areas where pimps are most likely prey on young girls.

At the CERI movie night, the on-screen images of streets in Brooklyn and the Bronx bore some resemblance to the streets just past the center’s doors—the center, and the homes of the girls in Afary’s support group, are located not too far from “the track,” a stretch of International Boulevard near 19th Avenue known for sex trafficking. The girls in the film were no older than the girls in the center’s living room. One girl watching the movie wiped a tear from her eye as one of the documentary’s characters described how she fell into the life after feeling like no one loved her. Others seemed to be watching in stunned silence.

After the movie had concluded, the girls at the meeting reflected on the film by painting and writing poetry. One of the poems began: “Little girl, wearing little clothing walking into the night, two big men on either side.”

The girls in CERI’s support group for young women made paintings in response to a documentary about the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

As they went around the room sharing their paintings and poems, several girls described encounters they had had with underage prostitutes. “The movie made me think of all the things she wanted to be,” said one girl, recalling an old friend who dropped out of school after becoming involved with a pimp. “She said she wanted to be a veterinarian.”

The program coordinator for the group, who is 20, described discovering that one of her boyfriend’s friends was a pimp. “He showed up to our house with this girl, and when she wouldn’t tell him where she had been he beat her up,” she recounted.

Everyone in the room looked horrified. One of the mentors asked why she hadn’t called the police. The girl responded, “We live in Oakland. The police would have come an hour later and he [the pimp] would have been gone.”

Afary is saddened—but not surprised—by the familiarity the girls in her group have with the realities of prostitution. Afary started this general prevention and early intervention program when some of her adult clients asked her to help them prevent their children and grandchildren “from reaching their destiny,” as they put it. This perceived fate includes involvement with gangs, selling drugs, and living a life of crime.

Soon after she formed the group, Afary realized the extent to which commercial sexual exploitation or CSEC—a term experts use instead of “prostitution” because they believe that children do not voluntarily choose to work in the sex trade—was a problem for girls in Oakland, and saw a need to address it with her group’s girls. “I heard about it ten years ago, then I heard about it seven years ago, but it wasn’t until someone that I knew was involved that I think I really understood it,” she said.

Two years ago the daughter of one of Afary’s adult clients disappeared. The family suspected that she had become involved with prostitution and was being held by a pimp. Phone calls from the daughter to her parents confirmed this inkling, Afary said. “I heard her voicemails, asking—begging—for help,” said Afary. “It was only then that I realized how the danger was really threatening our young girls.”

Barbara Loza-Murieria, program specialist for Alameda County’s Interagency Children’s Policy Council in the Sexually Exploited Minors network, said that pimps who go after young girls do so in very intentional ways. “Pimps troll and hunt for children with vulnerabilities,” she said, “the child who is shy, or sad, or troubled. They are experts at it.” Loza-Murieria said that this often overlaps with children who are already runaways or at-risk. She says that a child out on the street alone for 72 hours will most likely be approached by someone who wants to exploit them.

Loza-Murieria described a clear five-step process that happens after this sort of initial encounter: “Recruitment, seduction, isolation, coercion, and violence. It’s similar to an abusive relationship.” She depicted an elaborate process in which pimps will first befriend a girl, then romance her, isolate her from family and friends, and eventually convince or force her to have sex with strangers. Pimps will often slowly reveal to girls the violence that exists in their worlds. “If someone is beating the crap out of someone, wouldn’t that be enough to send that child away?” Loza-Murieria asked rhetorically, but added that some girls might not react by fleeing. “To children coming from poverty, where there is already exposure to violence, there’s a scary aspect to it but there’s also an aspect of force and strength,” she said.

Joshi said that the majority of girls she sees who are involved with commercial sexual exploitation are African American, and added that the socioeconomic challenges in the African American community put these girls especially at risk. But, she said, “It’s important to not put a slant on race, but to think about all girls.”

Joshi did add that having parents who don’t speak English—well or at all—is a risk factor for girls. These parents aren’t able to monitor the online activity of their daughters, or understand phone messages that might indicate that their daughter is being solicited sexually or is involved with a pimp. “It’s just another barrier,” said Joshi.

One of Mona Afary’s main goals at CERI is facilitating healthy intergenerational communication within Cambodian refugee families, because she sees a big disconnect between parents and children. This is partly because there’s such a disparity in their life experiences, she said—the parents lived through war and genocide and their children, who were all born in the United States, did not. But there are also cultural differences, she said: Their children are American, they speak English fluently, they go to school here. They don’t always hold onto their parents’ Cambodian customs. Afary worries that these factors lead to a lack of understanding between parents and teenage children, increasing the vulnerability of young girls. Additionally, refugee parents who worry that something may be wrong don’t always know how to speak to American authorities.

Loza-Muriera says that Southeast Asian teens and their families generally have less interaction with public systems—like those that provide juvenile justice, welfare and mental health services—than other ethnic groups. “The concept of mental health is sort of unknown to their culture,” she said.

She noted another concern, specific to Cambodians. “They have experienced war and oppression, many do not trust the authorities,” she said. “By the same token they want help, but often have no understanding of the system of how things work. These are all barriers to their children.”

But Loza-Muriera said that the community does trust Mona Afary, and that to its members, CERI feels like a home, not a mental health facility. It occupies the second floor of a Victorian mansion, and seems more like a community center or private home. Only three rooms down from where the girls’ support group is held, older Cambodian women prepare food and pray in a spiritual space—a makeshift temple.

Though there is reason for Afary to be concerned about young people in the Cambodian community, Oakland has been in the spotlight for the sex trafficking of minors of all ethnic backgrounds for several years. “Oakland is unfortunately known as a hub for this, but is also known for being a leader in addressing it,” said Loza-Muriera.

“Ten years ago a lot of focus was on international trafficking” she said, but since then attention has shifted to local teens, as the OPD and advocacy groups became more aware that they were being exploited, too.

According to Sgt. Joshi, who has been working in OPD’s vice and child exploitation unit since its creation in 2000, the OPD was one of the first police departments that recognized girls involved with sex trafficking as victims, instead of perpetrators. Police officers discovered a growing number of minors involved in prostitution in the late 90’s, she said. “We would arrest prostitutes and then discover that they were juveniles,” Joshi said. Adult prostitutes also told officers about young girls who were involved with pimps. The OPD worked with investigators who were already trained to work with adult prostitutes and gave them additional training to focus on underage girls.

Still, there is a grey area in the system about what to do with girls who are arrested by police. When Joshi or other officers find victims on the street, it’s up to them to decide if it’s appropriate to take them back to their family members, to group homes, to Juvenile Hall, or to Alameda County’s Children’s Assessment Center, where police officers and Child Protective Services staffers determine where children, often removed from their homes, should go next.

Joshi said that locking girls up suggests that they are criminals, but that when an officer does this it is with the girl’s safety in mind—it prevents her from immediately returning to her pimp. “If a girl doesn’t identify as a victim, we can’t put her in a program that she could walk back out of, because she’ll just go back to the life,” Joshi said. For example, the Children’s Assessment Center doesn’t have lockdown capabilities, Joshi said, “So a girl could call her pimp and be out the back door in 20 minutes.”

Joshi added that girls sent to Juvenile Hall are separated from teens who have been arrested for other reasons and are placed in an area with other exploited minors.

Loza-Muriera agrees that there isn’t one all-encompassing solution about where to take arrested girls. “There’s no one stroke for every kid. Everyone’s different. If they could take a child to a safe and secure place where that child could be held they would. But no such place exists,” she said.

DreamCatcher Emergency Youth Shelter in Oakland, a center for homeless and runaway children aged 13-18, recently got funding to create a whole new floor dedicated to victims of commercial sexual exploitation—a solution Loza-Muriera said would fill this gap in social services. The shelter is meant to be a safe place for victims of commercial sexual exploitation to go, without locking them up or returning them to potentially unstable family situations. But so far, construction has only just begun.

In the meanwhile, those who work with young girls hope that making them aware of the dangers of prostitution, and being comfortable sharing their feelings and experiences about it, will prevent them from getting caught up in the life. At the movie night, Afary said she wasn’t worried about the girls being too young to deal with the topics addressed in the documentary, because she realizes that they must see things in their neighborhoods that she never does. “I get agonized when I see how they have become used to, are witness to so much aggression and brutality around them,” she said. “It’s sort of like living in a war zone. I never lived in the war zone, and I’m still not. I’m just visiting it.”



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