By Lynsey Clark
While the schoolrooms are empty for the last bit of summer, a task force of Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) administrators have been planning ways to prevent child sex trafficking before it starts. The newest phase of their outreach includes educating parents about the facts of child trafficking in Oakland and holding assemblies across the district to educate seventh graders about the issue.
“What we want to do is get to these young people before the exploitation ever happens,” said Sandra Simmons, the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) Task Force co-leader for OUSD. “We need to focus now on prevention and education efforts throughout the school district before the exploiters get to our students.”
Oakland has been recognized as the West Coast hub for child trafficking. The magnitude of the problem has prompted responses from the Oakland Police Department (OPD), the FBI, and numerous community agencies who work to get girls off the street and provide resources to help them recover. Now OUSD, which educated 36,000 K-12th grade students last year, is joining the effort with prevention strategies.
The OUSD task force was founded in 2011 as a collaborative effort between school administrators and community service agencies to provide trainings on child trafficking to school employees. But the task force has come to believe that training personnel is not enough.
“It is time to educate the youth who this problem affects,” said Simmons. “The average age of a child exploited in Oakland is 12 years old. Having this conversation with seventh graders is an important part of addressing those who may be on the verge of being trafficked.”
“The curriculum will be based on prevention: self-esteem, self-care, building positive relationships, making safe choices,” Annette Oropeza the other task force co-leader said in an email. “The subject of what can happen if a youth runs away and is on the street may be discussed within the group.”
Discussion of such macabre topics with 12 years old is an unfortunate necessity in the Bay Area, said Susan Drager, the director of transition age youth services at WestCoast Children’s Clinic in Oakland (WCC).
“A prevention curriculum very early on is appropriate for our district. The earlier kids learn about healthy relationships and self esteem the better,” said Drager.
The curriculum for the seventh grade orientations was developed by Love Never Fails, a faith based non-profit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation, education and protection of young people at risk of sex trafficking. Vanessa Scott, the executive director of the organization, says that when she began developing the orientation material she quickly realized that there is very little material available on how to teach children about sexual exploitation.
“We talk about sexual, physical, emotional and neglect and then the intersection of trafficking,” said Scott. “There is a definite correlation between the people who are exploited and the exploiters and a shared background of abuse. We knew that was a good place to focus our attention when we began collaborating with the schools.”
Love Never Fails has volunteers from numerous churches around the Bay Area. However, the curriculum was developed to be non-secular and appropriate for any school. “The abuse prevention program has been a tremendous collaborative effort by volunteers from a variety of backgrounds,” said Scott. “We have a myriad of skill sets that we bring to this piece of work and its exciting how effective it has been to teach kids about abuse.”
Genice Jacobs, an OUSD parent and member of the task force has taken the lead on developing a fact sheet for OUSD parents.
“Certain parts of the city see young girls being trafficked everyday, but most people here do not truly understand the problem,” said Jacobs. “Many consider this to be “prostitution” when it really is child rape, and even less know what to do about it.”
Service providers are in agreement that community awareness and prevention efforts are vital in the county that prosecutes 46 percent of all child trafficking cases in the state. Drager suggested additional prevention methods including mandated training for all school staff every two years and trainings for foster parents.
“From our data we have too many foster youth who have been sexually exploited,” Drager said. “We need a concerted effort to provide group therapy and prevention and early intervention with foster youth, girls and boys.”
Drager believes that mental health services for foster youth is an important step as helping them overcome abuse. Training foster parents how to identify risky behavior and understand trauma is another component in preventing sexual exploitation.
Most commercially sexually exploited children have a history of abuse, neglect, and trauma prior to being victimized by traffickers according to 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 said. “They seek out vulnerable children at schools, homeless shelters, malls, bus depots, and foster care group homes.”
“Part of what happens to to these children depends on how the community responds to them,” Drager said. “If there is a way to work together to build prevention and intervention efforts for these youth that is collaborative and supportive then the effect of the abuse will be mitigated.”
Lynsey Clark is a second year student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Social Welfare and is a summer fellow in Fostering Media Connection’s Journalism for Social Change program.