Child Sex Trafficking Victims Deserve Protection and Support

Blog post Frank J. Mecca

The headline reads, “Dozens arrested in sex trafficking bust in Colorado.” Buried deeper in the story from April 27 about the adults arrested for trafficking and prostitution: among the children recovered was a 15-year-old victim who was transported to Colorado from California.

That 15-year-old child could have come from your community.

Just a week prior, on April 21, Fresno police announced a multi-agency gang sweep that lead to multiple arrests related to murder and prostitution. The gang leader is facing several charges, including sex trafficking of a minor, a 17-year-old girl who is now in foster care.

On that same day, here in Sacramento, I and other advocates made the case before legislators on why funding for services for victims of child sex trafficking must be expanded. County human services agencies and our community partners have just begun to understand and address the needs of children who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation, as we implement a 2014 statute enacted by the California Legislature and signed by Governor Brown. This law makes it clear that these children are victims who are unable to consent to the sex crimes for which they are still too often arrested and incarcerated, and they should be served through the child welfare system to the greatest extent possible rather than in jail or juvenile hall.

Reports like the ones in Colorado and Fresno remind us that child sex trafficking is happening in our communities every day. And these cases mentioned are just the ones we hear about. For every publicized sting operation, hundreds if not thousands of children – boys and girls – are being repeatedly victimized every single day throughout the state and across the country.

According to the FBI, three of the nation’s highest child sexual exploitation areas are located in California: the San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas. However, victims of commercial sex trafficking are spread throughout California, as perpetrators traffic children along major freeways and across county and state borders. Research indicates that demand for sex with children remains high, and profit to sex traffickers has increased.

Child sex trafficking is an appalling, gut-wrenching crime. When these victims are identified, whether as part of a sting operation by law enforcement or in the emergency room by a physician, these as well as other child-serving systems must recognize these children as serial rape victims who must be treated with care. These children need specialized treatment for months and even years after they are recovered in order to address the trauma associated with their exploitation as well as the years of abuse they often endured prior to trafficking.

Together with our partners in behavioral health, mental health and law enforcement, county child welfare agencies have begun building support for these child victims. The effort varies from the most immediate and basic of needs – clothing, a safe place to stay, medical care – to longer-term efforts such as therapy to break bonds with traffickers and ensure these children can begin rebuilding their lives after enduring unimaginable trauma.

The Legislature provided start-up funding in the 2014-15 state budget; with that funding, 22 county child welfare agencies served 418 children between June 2015 and September 2015 alone. These agencies expect to serve another 800 children in 2015-16. But more counties are awaiting funding to provide these services and more services are needed in the counties that have already gotten started. Given the trends and our growing experience with victims’ needs, counties are requesting $19.7 million in 2016-17 to ensure services are available to child victims of commercial sexual exploitation in 18 additional counties, for a total of 40 counties statewide.

California has made progress in recognizing child sex trafficking is happening here and victims should be treated with special care and dignity, thanks to the support of the Governor, Legislature and the public. We have thoughtfully crafted the foundation of a program to begin attacking this horrific problem. Despite our efforts to date, the needs are great and many more victims are out there yet to be served.

We cannot afford to stall our progress. Additional funding is needed to ensure that the next time a child is recovered in a sex trafficking sting or at a hospital – and that very well could be tonight – he or she has the support needed and a safe place to start what is certain to be a long journey of recovery.

- Frank Mecca, CWDA Executive Director