Last week, Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors voted in favor of refurbishing the “soft room,” a space that the Sheriff’s Department uses to interview and offer services to victims of human trafficking. The move underscores the county’s efforts to shift the conversation around those touched by commercial sexual exploitation from suspect to victim.
The motion was brought to the Board by Department of Child and Family Services Director Philip Browning, Sheriff Jim McDonnell, and Interim Chief Probation Officer Calvin Remington. It grants each department access to up to $2,500 to decorate the space, and to rename the room in honor of Supervisor Don Knabe.
Captain Chris Marks of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) Human Trafficking Bureau and Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force hopes the new funds will continue to improve the space, and make it safer for young women dealing with trauma.
A soft room is an alternative to an interrogation room, and for the L.A. task force it is used as a place to speak with children who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation, or CSEC. The task force was created by the Sheriff’s Department in 2015 to identify, rescue and provide “victim-centered services” to victims, “while working to investigate, arrest and prosecute offenders.” It does this work collaboratively, engaging partners in every level of government, as well as the nonprofit service-delivery sector.
Operations Lieutenant Kent Wegener, also of the LASD Human Trafficking Bureau and L.A. Regional Human Trafficking Task Force, explained that the implementation of a soft room is “symptomatic” of the overall efforts by the county and this new task force.
“We realized that the people we had previously treated as suspects or defendants were now going to be treated as the victims that they were,” Wegener said.
Part of this meant giving them a more comfortable and safer space than an interrogation room or holding cell.
“When we bring these girls in, oftentimes they haven’t slept, they haven’t eaten, they may have nothing more than the clothing on their back,” Wegener said. “Sometimes they just come in and sleep, they take a nap for an hour or two — we have blankets in there, and a nice comfortable couch.”
Once brought in to the human trafficking bureau, victims have access to a slew of services offered by the regional task force. Services for victims are spearheaded by the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), which was brought into the task force thanks to a grant from the Department of Justice. CAST and its partners are especially active during the first 72 hours a victim is away from their abuser, because that is the window during which they are most likely to go back.
The CSEC Integrated Leadership Team, which represents the Department of Child and Family Services, the Sheriff’s Department and the Probation Department, will go before the Board this Wednesday – in an irregularly scheduled meeting, thanks to Tuesday’s election – to present its quarterly update.
According to the report, the program’s first responder program has “seen a total of 181 CSEC recoveries through the protocol in the pilot areas and the areas of expansion” since August 2014.
Many of these victims have passed through the soft room. With a few thousand new dollars at work, the landing for victims aims to be even softer in the coming months.