Money Talks in Fight Against Sexual Exploitation of Children

New funding is raising the profile of commercially sexually exploited children, and hopes that California can do a better job to protect them.

A recent infusion of funding from both the state and federal government, as well as a push from Governor Jerry Brown, has sped up California’s efforts to create a comprehensive plan to better serve commercially sexually exploited children, or CSEC.

The 2014-15 state budget, passed in June 2014, set aside $5 million of funding for this year and $14 million annually beginning in 2015-16 to create the Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) Program, which will be administered by the State Department of Social Services.

The program’s goals are to fund prevention, intervention, and other services for children who are sexually trafficked and to provide training to child welfare and foster caregivers. A set of trauma-informed best practices for how agencies should interact with CSEC are also being created.

California’s push to develop a CSEC program comes at a time when other states are also creating and expanding statewide model protocols as the public’s interest in this issue continues to rise. Currently more than 100,000 children in the United States are trafficked, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Between 2010 and 2012, California’s nine human trafficking task forces identified 1,277 child victims, 72 percent of whom were from the United States.

Alameda County HEAT Watch

Photo credit: Alameda County HEAT Watch

“People are listening, and more importantly, becoming outraged at the thought of a child being sold for sex,” said Kate Walker, a lawyer with the National Center for Youth Law who is spearheading the creation of protocols for California’s CSEC Program. “The conversation has significantly shifted in the last three years. It’s not automatically arrest these kids, it’s what can the agencies and partners do to work together to protect these kids in their communities.”

Starting in July 2015, counties may choose to opt into the CSEC Program, making them eligible for a part of that $14 million appropriation. In order to receive funding, counties must have an interagency protocol in place to address sexually exploited minors and a plan as to how they will spend the money. The model protocols are being developed by the CSEC Action Group.

The 50-member CSEC Action Group is a creation of the California Child Welfare Council, an advisory body created after the passage of the Child Welfare Leadership Accountability Act of 2006. The CSEC Action Group, or Action Team as it is sometimes called, was created in June 2013 following the release of the Child Welfare Council’s report authored by Walker, “Ending the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: A Call for Multi System Collaboration in California”. Since the report’s release, the CSEC Action Team has been working to get the report’s recommendations implemented, one of which is to create a standardized, trauma-informed approach and training for counties to use.

“Ideally we want every county to opt in,” Walker said. “The idea is that many counties will adopt and implement the model protocols, and as kids move across county lines they’ll be met with a similar victim-centered approach.”

The CSEC Action Group members applied and were then appointed to the team based on their experience working with this population.

Part of their job is to take into account the unique needs of sexually exploited minors, including the severe trauma that these minors have faced, which often includes trauma from time spent in the foster care system. According to the Child Welfare Council’s report, studies have estimated that anywhere between 50-80 percent of CSEC are or were formerly involved with the child welfare system.

“Often what is lost in translation is that we cannot just address the trauma these youth are exposed to when they are being trafficked, but there is also the trauma in their lives that led them to be vulnerable to exploitation in the first place,” said Joyce Capelle, CEO of Crittenton Services for Children and Families. “Trafficking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Part of the value of having a statewide taskforce is that there are a lot of advocates populating the group with varied experience.”

A victim-centered approach ensures that sexually exploited minors are recognized as victims of abuse and treated as such as opposed to being penalized and persecuted.

The development of better-informed practices for CSEC predates the Governor’s passage of the state budget and the appropriation for sexually exploited minors.

Also pushing the CSEC agenda forward was the passage of federal bill HR 4980, the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, as well as a $250,000, five-year grant awarded to the California Department of Social Services to address human trafficking among the foster care population.

Walker said now with money to back the policy ideas, the group has stronger footing to move forward.

As early as March 2015, the CSEC Action Group plans to release a practice guidance toolkit and hopes to solicit feedback.

With money being allocated to CSEC, both Walker and Capelle can see the philosophical mind shift that is in progress.

“You have this patchwork quilt in California and some counties are really trying to work with CSEC well, and there are some counties that don’t even acknowledge it,” said Capelle. “This task force can come up with great recommendations, and with this money we have a mandate to put them in place.”

Brittany Patterson
is a recent graduate of U.C. Berkeley’s School of Journalism, and a former Journalism for Social Change Student.

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