LOS ANGELES — The sexual exploitation and abuse of children in the child welfare system and what can be done to prevent it was discussed by elected officials and representatives of the National Foster Youth Institute Nov. 21 at a town hall meeting.
U.S. Reps. Karen Bass and Janice Hahn, county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and state Sen. Isadore Hall III took part in leading the conversation.
“This is really about all underage girls and boys who are involved in sex trafficking and the majority of them happen to be in foster care,” Bass said.
“I think this was a critically important event to hear about what’s happening in our community to girls as young as 9 years old who are involved and caught up into sex trafficking,” she added.
“Our basic responsibility is to make sure that every child is safe. However, nearly 60 percent of the children who were arrested on prostitution charges in Los Angeles County spent time in the foster care system. Preventing this link between foster care and sex trafficking is a key part of the conversation.”
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department recently announced that it would no longer use the term “child prostitute,” because young girls forced into prostitution are actually the victims of rape.
“Our children are not for sale,” Ridley-Thomas said. “Children are lured and trapped. Once they are in and are committed to the subculture of exploitation, there are deeper levels. It is a moral crisis with true consequences in the lives of these children.
“I intend to do everything in my power to address this problem and help these young people leave conditions that absolutely no one should endure,” Ridley-Thomas added.
It is estimated that in Los Angeles County, 3,000 children are victims of trafficking. The average age for a person to enter that life is between 12 and 13 years old. Sex trafficking also has become a highly lucrative business run by many street gangs.
The National Foster Youth Institute, which convened the town hall meeting at the Founder’s Church of Religious Science in Koreatown, aims to reform and strengthen the child welfare system and improve outcomes for foster youth.
“Real change will happen when we involve the community,” said Michelle Guymon, director of child trafficking in the Los Angeles County Probation Department.
The Nov. 21 meeting came the day after law enforcement officials and prosecutors met downtown to coordinate efforts aimed at reducing child sex trafficking.
“With this summit and the work of our local prosecutors’ offices, we want to send a clear message to human traffickers and buyers of child sex that we know they exist and we are after them,” Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said. “I hope we also send a clear message to the victims of human trafficking, who are still in bondage, that we care about them and are looking for ways to help free them.”
Also last week Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell announced the formation of a human trafficking task force aimed at providing relief to the hundreds of men and women ensnared by sex traffickers each year.
The unit will include personnel from the Sheriff’s Department, the FBI, the District Attorney’s Office and other agencies and focus on bringing stiffer prosecutions against traffickers and johns who interact with minors, McDonnell said.
California is a hot spot for human trafficking. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline has received more than 2,000 reports of human trafficking cases in California since 2012, the most of any state. The hotline has received 477 reports of trafficking cases in California so far in 2015, more than twice the number reported in Texas, the state from which the hotline received its second highest number of calls.
McDonnell said he hopes the task force will allow law enforcement to provide better access to relief resources for trafficking victims. Roughly 85 people from various law enforcement and social service agencies will be assigned to the task force, officials said.
Bass was happy with the Nov. 21 town hall.
“There are new ways for people to report abuse; there are trainings for people so that they know how to recognize [sex trafficking],” she said. “But the really good news is that we met some leaders in the community and county here who have been making some very significant gains. So now there are programs and places for people to go and there are ways for us to address this.”
City News Service contributed to this story.