For as long as anyone can remember, children who are bought and sold for sex have either been ignored or, when they do catch our attention, arrested and incarcerated–and then released right back into the streets.
In the past few years a handful of California counties have seen their probation departments and juvenile courts rethink and retool. Some excellent and innovative programs have sprung up (S.T.A.R. Court in Los Angeles County and Girls Courts in Alameda, Orange, Sacramento, and San Mateo counties to name few). The treatment, as opposed to punishment, offered to child victims of trafficking through these programs has been a welcome reform.
However, these changes have taken place within the criminal justice system. The children who have been raped, beaten, possibly tortured and terrorized by their traffickers and purchasers are also in the eyes of the law criminal defendants–guilty of crime. In any other context our values are clear–when an adult rapes a child the child is a victim and the adult is the criminal. When money changes hands and a third party benefits, this same child is criminalized and the adults, more often than not, walk away.
Now is the time to take a definitive step forward, to close the door on the criminalization of the victim and ensure that every child in California who is sold for sex is welcomed by the child welfare system. Every victim–boy, girl, youth who identifies as LGBTQ, domestic or international–is provided with immediate care and services specific to that child’s needs, by way of medical attention, mental health interventions, educational assessment, safe housing, and protection from further exploitation.
California is now positioned to change not only the dialogue but also the human response to the long overlooked and marginalized victims of child sex trafficking. Last year Governor Brown signed SB 855 into law providing state funding to help these young victims through services and prevention and intervention training for the child welfare and juvenile justice systems who come into contact with trafficked youth ($5 million in 2014-15 and $14 million annually thereafter). The bill also clarified that trafficked children are victims, and as such are more properly served by child welfare when the parent or guardian is unable to keep the child safe.
The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) has taken the necessary first steps by hiring program staff, issuing guidance and allocating funds. The Child Welfare Council’s CSEC Action Team has created a framework of guiding principles and other resources for counties to implement new policies to help this vulnerable population. And counties have spent months planning, discussing, and debating.
Despite these efforts, SB 855 is well over a year old, and trafficked, exploited children are still being charged with prostitution and sent to jail. Now is the time to act; gatekeepers at every decision-making point must ensure that these children are protected and supported by the child welfare system and the community. The courts, law enforcement, public agencies, private entities, survivor advocates, policymakers, and community organizations must join hands to protect and heal our children.
Today, the CSEC Action Team, in partnership with the Judicial Council of California and CDSS, is convening twenty-one counties’ CSEC multidisciplinary teams, bringing together nearly 250 individuals—judges, lawyers, law enforcement, social workers, probation officers, health and mental health professionals, policymakers, advocates and, survivors. Individually and collectively they have the ability to make the necessary practice changes these young victims so deserve. We must take this opportunity to move beyond talk to action.
Leslie Starr Heimov is the executive director of Children’s Law Center of California. Kate Walker Brown is an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law.