In January, California State Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) introduced AB 1730, a bill that would provide commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC) with a housing option that caters to their specific needs.
“Currently, the two main options for when a victim is found is juvenile hall or foster care,” said Jessica Duong, senior press aide for Atkins. “Neither option is equipped to help these victims.”
There is a very limited number of facilities in California that have the comprehensive services needed to aid a child victim through the recovery process, despite the FBI naming Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego three of the nation’s 13 high intensity areas of child exploitation in the country. The bill introduced by Atkins aims to change that.
If passed, AB 1730 would establish a pilot program that provides child victims with a temporary safe haven along with trauma-informed, mental health services to aid recovery and promote well-being. A trauma-informed approach involves understanding the impact of past trauma on a youth’s current situation and using this understanding to empower the child to cope in a way that avoids re-traumatizing them, according to a study by Elizabeth Barnert, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.
Victims of sex trafficking have very particular needs as a result of their trauma. CSEC victims experience a high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse, anxiety and suicidality, according to Barnert’s study, “Understanding and Responding to the Needs of Commercially Sexually Exploited Youth.” Without the proper services, many victims tend to end up homeless or back with their exploiters.
AB 1730 aims to keep child victims away from sex trafficking for good by developing and recommending individualized treatment plans for youth as well as permanent placement solutions that extend beyond long stays in juvenile hall or group homes.
Providing children who have been exploited with a safe space is critical to their stabilization, according to the Child Welfare Council yearly report that develops recommendations to improve outcomes for children in the child welfare system. Additionally, the report states that a stay in juvenile hall or a group home is far from ideal for victims who need specialized one-on-one attention and care, considering that staff at a juvenile hall or a group home are generally not prepared to deal with the type of issues a victim of exploitation presents with.
“More placement options with a continuum of services are needed,” said Susan Abrams, an attorney at the Children’s Law Center of California. “As well as making sure everyone who is interacting with a victim is trained.”
The AB 1730 program would include experienced staff who would be trained to specifically work with child sex trafficking victims.
One issue that will have to be addressed as the bill moves along is whether the proposed facility will be locked or not.
“I’m not sure if the facility will be locked,” said Duong. “But it will be in a remote area so that traffickers can’t try and take the victims away.”
In addition to being in a remote area, and possibly being a locked facility, the lead legislators would consider having a staff protective presence in case traffickers attempted to approach the facility, according to Duong.
The long-term goal of the bill is to expand the pilot program all over California. Before that can happen, though, the bill must pass and show that victims will not return to their trafficker if given proper mental health services in appropriate settings.
The bill passed out of the Public Safety Committee on March 1 and is currently in the Appropriations Committee. Funding for the pilot program is dependent on appropriation in the annual state budget.
Omar Avila is a candidate for a Master of Social Work degree at USC’s School of Social Work. He wrote this article while taking the Media for Policy Change course offered at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.