Los Angeles Task Force Takes On Underage Prostitution

PHOTO: In 2010, 174 juveniles were arrested for prostitution -- nearly 60 percent came from foster care.dogulove/flickr
In 2010, 174 juveniles were arrested for prostitution -- nearly 60 percent came from foster care.

A majority of juveniles arrested for prostitution in Los Angeles County come from the county's foster care system, a social problem that a new task force hopes to mitigate.

In 2010, police in Los Angeles arrested about 174 juveniles for prostitution-related charges. Nearly 60 percent of them were foster care youth, according to an analysis by the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors created a task force last weekto better address this issue of child sex trafficking. The task force will incorporate child services, law enforcement, as well as probation and mental health workers to confront the problem from a variety of angles.

This new effort follows passage of Propostion 35. California voters approved the initiative, which increases penalties on sex traffickers.

Michelle Guymon, probation director with the Los Angeles County Probation Department, said the reason foster care youth are such a high percentage of sexually trafficked minors is because they are easier targets.

"Pimps rely on the kids' vulnerability," said Guymon. "If I'm being brought up in a family where I have parents and a family, support and a decent life, then I'm not as susceptible to some guy trying to coerce me to live with him."

Earnings help drive the trade. Girls in custody of the county's probation department have reported having $500 to $800 per night quotas. In a study by the Polaris Project, an advocacy organization against human trafficking and modern-day slavery, researchers found that a pimp exploiting four women or girls at similar rates made him $632,000 a year.

In Los Angeles, the vast majority of foster care youth are minorities. Almost 60 percent are Hispanic and 27 percent are African American, according to the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services.

Most underage prostitution arrests in Los Angeles tend to be of girls working on the street, according to Guymon. However, she says that it is likely that there are children who are not trafficked in the open, but rather through underground brothels or legitimate storefronts, like massage parlors.

African American girls made up 92 percent of the underage arrestees -- some who were as young as 10 years old.

"That doesn't mean it's not happening in the Latino community – it absolutely is," Guymon explained. "It's more controlled and it's more underground."

Sex trafficking among Latinos is more likely to be confined to brothels, according the Polaris Project report. Rather than approach girls who work the street, men who pay for sex come to a centralized location and pay for 15-minute blocks of time.

Organized criminal networks, such as gangs, have turned increasingly to sex trafficking as a source of income, according to a report by the California Attorney General's office. Sex trafficking can be more lucrative than drugs and is less risky.

The report says that in California, some rival gangs have put aside disputes and collaborate on human trafficking:

"Some domestic street gangs, including the Bloods and Sureños, have set aside their conflicts and territorial disputes in the interest of organized criminal collaboration. As a result, gangs that were traditionally rivals are increasingly working together to profit from forced prostitution and forced labor of minor and adult victims."

The link between prostitution and organized crime makes it even more important for police to keep an open line of communication with potential trafficking victims. Los Angeles police use arrests as a chance to isolate the girls from their pimps and attempt to get them to cooperate in investigations, according to Michelle Guymon. But because the efforts aren't coordinated across departments, girls often reunite with pimps as soon as they're released.

A major part of the problem is that underage prostitutes are treated like criminals when they should be considered victims, according to county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich.

"The system ought to be working against those who force these young people into prostitution," he said at a recent county meeting. "The victims, they need to have healthcare. They are walking with STD's and other types of illnesses and diseases."