In 1996, about 1,000 delegates from 130 nations gathered in Stockholm to finally get serious about a global effort to curb a problem to which it had long turned a blind eye: the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Only a handful of youth were present to lend their voices, and the press had to report from the outside.
But by 2010, Los Angeles law enforcement officials, community organizations and children’s rights lawyers could no longer deny the truth: One of the nation’s most populous counties, in the City of Angels, was actually a hot spot for the sex trafficking of vulnerable children.
Today, the county considers itself a national leader in combating the problem. And recently, the county and the National Center for Youth Law jointly issued a 273-page report that promotes local efforts as a model for other American communities to follow: “Building Bridges: How Los Angeles County Came Together to Support Children and Youth Impacted by Commercial Sexual Exploitation.”
The report acknowledges the roles played by county supervisors, community leaders, government agencies and other organizations in pulling together what they consider to be a most effective program – while acknowledging the work is not over.
Among the individuals identified as early catalysts opening people’s eyes to the problem are Emilio Mendoza, a Probation Department official, and Debbi Deem, a former FBI agent, who co-chaired a regional subcommittee on domestic minor sex trafficking in 2010. Judge Donna Groman was singled out, as well. They shared the belief that children involved were not criminals, but victims who deserved services to help them recover and heal.
Among the other critical agencies who have come on board to make that happen are: the Sheriff’s Department as well as the departments of Probation and Children and Family Services; the District Attorney’s office and the Public Defender’s office. Community partners that get prominent mention include the Children’s Law Center of California, Forgotten Children and Restoration Diversion Services.
“With greater understanding of the issue came the realization that children and youth who have been commercially sexually exploited are victims of child abuse and neglect in need of comprehensive, trauma-informed supports and services,” the report states. “Today, Los Angeles County is a national leader in the fight against the commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth — proactively identifying youth who have been exploited and connecting them with intensive, specialized services while also implementing innovative prevention strategies and dynamic education campaigns. It all began with a small number of champions that has evolved into a widespread response involving all corners and sectors of the County.”
One aim of the report is to highlight the innovative programs and practices Los Angeles County has developed and to share the lessons the county has learned with other jurisdictions across the country. One of those lessons is that the voices of survivors need to be heard and heeded in the development of policy and practices. The county used their input to inform legislative changes and to foster interdisciplinary efforts to address victims’ specialized housing needs, support their education and redevelop their personal sense of power.
“The changes in Los Angeles have not only improved responses for youth here but have and will continue to make an impact far beyond our county borders,” said one of the authors, Kate Walker Brown, director of the National Center for Youth Law’s Collaborative Responses to Commercial Sexual Exploitation Initiative, in a statement.