LOS ANGELES — The Rev. Deborah Manns vividly recalls the phone call as if it were yesterday.
“My best friend called me very distraught because one of her granddaughters, who was 13, did not come home from school one day,” recalls Manns, who is also a commercial real estate broker.
Police found the girl 48 hours later at the home of a 31-year-old man who, the family learned, she met on her way home from school at a nearby fast-food restaurant.
The man told the teen that he loved her and wanted to take care of her. When the girl ran away to be with him, he began selling her for sex to his friends.
Manns was stunned to learn that hundreds of girls — and boys — end up on the streets or in the juvenile justice system after having been sex trafficked.
Concerned, Manns founded the Virtuous Women in 2007 to reduce the number of young girls going into the justice system. Through the work of the Virtuous Woman, she created Project Destiny, a mentoring and advocacy program. Manns partners with law enforcement to make sure that vulnerable youth are rescued from the streets and are offered an alternative to incarceration.
Through her volunteer efforts, Manns has helped rescue more than 160 girls within the last 9 ½ years. Through Project Destiny, she counsels as many as 43 girls a month who have been rescued from domestic human sex trafficking.
Manns meets with the girls for 13 weeks to mentor them and to build a stable nurturing relationship. Topics include reprogramming trauma, teaching proper decision-making within adult and minor relationships, the risks of being trafficked, and supporting them in progressive mental health treatment.
Manns said that sex trafficking has reached epidemic proportions nationwide.
“California is the fifth largest state for sex trafficking in the nation,” said Manns, who also works closely with the juvenile courts, the county Probation Department, Department of Children and Family Services and local law enforcement to rescue missing girls.
“Most of these girls are looking for love in all the wrong places,” Manns said. “A lot of times, these girls don’t get the attention they seek at home. So they might meet a guy, and the guy turns out to be a pimp. This new ‘boyfriend’ gives her the attention she craves.”
Manns said that many of the pimps are gang bangers lured into the trade by the promise of “easy” money.
“Sex trafficking is big business because the gang bangers found out it is easier to sell girls than to sell drugs,” she said.
According to Manns, some pimps use various methods to procure girls — including boldly kidnapping girls off the street.
“It’s called ‘guerilla pimping,’” she said. “The pimp beats the girls, drugs them, rapes them and then puts them on the ‘blade,’ a street known for prostitution.”
The minister said that pimps scour neighborhoods, parks, nail shops, malls, or just drive down the street searching for girls to recruit. Manns said they also have “recruiters” in group homes.
Manns said another popular method pimps use is social media.
“They look for girls on Facebook, Instagram, or Snap hat and contact them through the girl’s direct messaging, where you send a girl a direct message where no one else can see it. He might say something like ‘you look cute’ or ‘you’re so fine. Let’s meet up.’”
Manns added that the pimp uses material goods to lure the girl into his stable.
“They offer them things like getting her hair and nails done,” she said. “He’ll also offer her food, shelter, clothing and marijuana. Once they are recruited, the girls are forced to stay in motels or in cars. They are trafficked all over — the Valley, Compton and throughout L.A. County.”
Manns says she tries to act as a “surrogate mother” to the girls.
“It’s a process, it’s not easy,” Manns said of her work, where she might get a phone call at 3 a.m. from a girl who is hiding from her pimp and begs Manns to come and pick her up.
“All I want to know is if the girl is safe,” Manns said. “I bring them to my house and they shower. If they’re hungry, I give them something to eat. Then they go to sleep. In the morning, depending on whether they’re on probation or have a social worker, I have to give them back to where they belong.”
Manns often accompanies girls to court who have decided to testify against their pimp.
“Sometimes the pimp beats the rap — if a young girl gets arrested and is under the age of 18, the girl goes to juvenile hall. Minors cannot be bailed out of jail to testify.”
For older girls over the age of 18 who have escaped sex trafficking, Manns puts them up in a motel where they can be safe.
“I have a connection with two motels where I can house the girls for up to three days,” said Manns, who uses her own personal funds through real estate and preaching engagements to finance her endeavors. “After three days, I talk to them and then we figure out where they want to go.”
Despite the fact that a girl may have been rescued from sex trafficking, Manns said that pimps often use “mind control” to lure the girls back into their clutches.
“The pimps coerce the girls with talk like, ‘Nobody is going to love you like I do. Nobody is going to provide for you like I will.’ Some girls succumb to the sweet talk — and run away again to rejoin the pimp.”
The minister said that after rescuing numerous girls, she has been confronted by their angry pimps.
“I’ve been threatened, chased and followed,” she said. “They have text messaged me and vowed to do me bodily harm. I tell them, ‘You can threaten me all you want, but I know about you just like you know about me.’”
Despite the potential danger, Manns said, “I do not turn my back on any girl who comes to my door. I want to see my girls free. I want them to go to the prom, graduate from high school and go to college. I am committed to the girls and I will stick with them through the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Manns’ future plans include opening a Project Destiny Home of Hope Recovery Center in January, which will be a full service center for minors.
Deborah Manns can be reached at email@example.com.