Special L.A. Court Hopes to Better Serve Young Victims of Sex Trafficking

Los Angeles County leaders are expected to release funds tomorrow to support a dedicated courtroom for child welfare system-involved young people who have been victims of sex trafficking.

The county’s Board of Supervisors will vote on Tuesday to execute an agreement with Children’s Law Center of California for $250,000 to cover the costs of running the courtroom, named the Dedication to Restoration through Empowerment, Advocacy, and Mentoring (DREAM) court, at Edelman’s Children’s Court in Monterey Park for one year.

Children’s Law Center (CLC) represents the nearly 35,000 children in foster care in Los Angeles County as they make their way through the county’s dependency courts. CLC also represents children in Sacramento County.

Advocates believe that anywhere from 40 percent to 58 percent of youth in California who are victims of sex trafficking have been or are involved in the foster care system.

The DREAM court, which is largely modeled after the Los Angeles County Probation Department’s STAR court, first began hearing cases in January of 2016, and by June of that year had been assigned 45 cases. According to L.A. County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the court currently has more than 150 cases assigned to its calendar.

“The purpose of the recommended action is to support CSEC [commercially sexually exploited children] and promote changes to view and treat CSEC as victims who are in need of protective services rather than criminals in Los Angeles County,” reads the request from DCFS.

The intent, according to a DCFS official, is to hear all CSEC cases in one courtroom.

“All staff within the court are trained on CSEC so they have an understanding of the needs of the youth, and when a child comes in they’re a little more compassionate to what’s going on than a typical courtroom,” said Edward Fithyan, division chief of the agency’s Bureau of Specialized Response Services during the March 20 meeting of the county’s Commission for Children and Families.

“The children’s attorneys are much more interactive with the child; they go out and visit the child, [and] they have telephone contact on a regular basis with the child, sometimes in the middle of the night,” Fithyan said in describing the opportunities presented by having a dedicated court for CSEC youth. “The hearing officer – the judge – is very involved with the child when they walk into the court, very talkative, and they see the kids more often, at least every three months, [and] sometimes more often than that.”

The DREAM court is a product of the 2014 passage of Senate Bill (SB) 855, which clarified that CSEC, or trafficked youth, fall under the jurisdiction of the child welfare system as victims of child abuse and neglect, rather than the criminal justice system.

SB 855 also created a statewide CSEC initiative that counties can opt into in order to receive financial support for CSEC-related activities such as multidisciplinary teams, advocacy, prevention and intervention. This $14 million allocation in the state’s general fund is the mechanism through which the DREAM court will be funded.

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