by Lynsey Clark and John Kelly
Note: This story was updated on Aug. 5 with new information from Michigan
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced this week that a recent law enforcement sweep led to the arrest of 152 pimps and the “recovery of more than 105 children who were being victimized through prostitution.”
But it seems that at least some of those girls – perhaps most – have met the same initial fate as the pimps. They were arrested, and then processed in the juvenile justice system.
Information obtained by The Imprint suggests that girls recovered in the San Francisco and Milwaukee areas during “Operation Cross Country VII” were turned over to law enforcement, and that at least some were incarcerated.
The situation is a high-profile reflection of a common practice opposed by anti-trafficking and youth advocates: arresting minors involved in prostitution as a way to access protection and support services for them. Federal and state legislation has been introduced to steer more underage trafficking victims into the child welfare system.
“We should not be arresting victims,” said Jodie Langs, the policy and communications director at the Oakland, Calif.-based WestCoast Children’s Clinic (WCCC). “It seems to me that no matter what we believe, our current practice says: ‘You’ve done something wrong and that’s why we’re locking you up and charging you with a crime.’ This conveys the same thing that their traffickers do—that no one cares what happens to you. ”
In Milwaukee, where 10 trafficking victims were recovered, FBI spokesman Leonard Peace said that of the girls recovered, some were “taken to juvenile hall” while others were placed with relatives or shelters and safe houses.
Peace also said that the FBI was offering all of the girls support services through nonprofit providers in the area.
Asked whether the 10 girls had been arrested, or if any were currently incarcerated, Peace initially said he “was awaiting some information from the squad.”
Shortly after, The Imprint was instructed to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the information, a process by which citizens can apply to obtain records and documents from federal agencies.
After The Imprint objected to the referral, Supervisory Special Agent for the FBI in Milwaukee Chad Elgersma informed us that the agency would provide no immediate response to our questions.
“Given the fact that juveniles are involved, I’m not comfortable giving more information,” Elgersma said in a phone call to The Imprint.
In San Francisco, division spokesperson Julie Sohne said that the girls are “victims and we are there to help them with services,” but “at the end of the day we are partners with state and local agencies who handle the details of the individual cases.”
In the Bay Area, where 12 of the girls were recovered, Sgt. Mark Ornsby of the Hayward Police Department said that the young women are often charged with prostitution.
“They are charged because they were involved in the acts,” he said. “Once they are in juvenile detention, we offer them recovery programs in which they may or may not enroll.”
Service providers in the Bay Area acknowledge that, in San Francisco and Oakland, the easiest way for funds for support services to flow is thought a juvenile court referral. The trade-off can be a criminal record that includes prostitution, and time in an incarceration facility.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said Ellyn Bell, CEO of San Francisco-based SAGE Project, which serves youths and adults who were or are involved in sex work. “It’s unfortunate for them to be in that system, but it’s only through that system that youth actually get help” in the Bay Area.
By contrast, Michigan State Police said only one of the girls recovered in the Detroit area was arrested, and it was because of an outstanding misdemeanor warrant.
“We don’t arrest child victims,” said MSP Lieutenant Michael Shaw. All of the other victims were handed over to the Department of Social Services, he said, with a priority to return them to their families.
Anti-trafficking organizations on the state and national level have spoken out against the criminalization of children who have suffered the effects of sexual trafficking. They want these cases to be removed from the juvenile delinquency jurisdiction.
“We need to be supporting children who have been sexually exploited not arresting them,” said Susan Drager the director of transition age youth services at WCCC, which offers tailored treatments specifically for trafficked children.
The more appropriate avenue, advocates argue, is through the child welfare system.
“There is a lack of recognition that child trafficking is even child abuse,” said Langs of WCCC, which provides specialized treatment to trafficked girls. “Right now, when our staff calls the child protective services hotline, the agency is unable to connect that trafficked child with services. It’s extremely challenging to connect sexually exploited youth with the right services and protection when you can’t get in the front door.”
“We don’t like to see youth penalized for something like this,” said Bell. “They’ve been manipulated, pulled into something. Regardless of how they feel about that now, there was probably trauma involved underneath.”
Sgt. Ornsby said that while they recognize that they need support, they believe juvenile hall is the immediate safest place for them.
“They take a while to open up because they are scared and afraid for their lives,” he said. “Often times juvenile hall is the only safe place that we can keep them off the street and away from their exploiter.”
The issue has reached the halls of Congress and state houses. U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) introduced The Strengthening the Child Welfare Response to Trafficking Act in April, which would require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop and publish guidelines to assist child welfare agencies in serving trafficking victims.
The bill “has many of the components we need as a state,” Langs said. “Its provisions include data collection and developing a state plan to address the issue. There are ways that can be developed into accountability measures within the child welfare system.”
In California – where the FBI has determined that three of the nation’s thirteen High Intensity Child Prostitution areas are located – Sen. Leland Yee (D) has authored Senate Bill 738, which would expand child welfare services to trafficked children. Yee’s bill would require that the child welfare system train group homes, foster parents and kinship caregivers on the best practices for caring for a victim of child trafficking.
“These children are not viewed as sexually exploited,” said Dan Lieberman, a spokesman for Sen. Yee. “And that is one of the challenges that our bill intends to correct. We want the courts to recognize that sexual exploitation is not prostitution. It is not a choice.”
“Most commercially sexually exploited children have a history of abuse, neglect, and trauma prior to being victimized by traffickers,” said a report published by the state’s Child Welfare Council this year, which estimated that between 50 and 80 percent of trafficked girls were in foster care.
Exploiters actively seek out vulnerable children to exploit and recruit the report explains. “They seek out vulnerable children at schools, homeless shelters, malls, bus depots, and foster care group homes.”
“Sadly there may not have been the terminology to correctly describe the problem or legislation that appropriately responds to the clearly complex nature,” Lieberman explained. “The legislation intends to modernize the law to recognize how sexual exploitation operates.”
Lynsey Clark is a second year student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Social Welfare. John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Imprint.