Domestic minors fall prey to sex traffickers: Misled, Coerced, and Abused in L.A.

Photo courtesy of “Saving Innocence”

BY RAISA OSTAPENKO

Melanie Danae Williams, then 22, danced at an intersection on Gage Avenue in Los Angeles, brandishing a gun in her right hand and rocking her body back and forth to Mozzy’s Anti Freestyle, a hip-hop song blaring through an open car window.

This October 2018 footage would be the last that Williams, a California native, would post of herself on her public Twitter account before pleading guilty to coercing minors into commercial sex work – an offense that would see her sentenced to 15 years in a federal prison and ordered to pay restitution to the many victims whose lives she endeavored to wreck.

Williams was one of thousands of sex traffickers on the streets of Los Angeles. Most are still operating.

When many people hear the word sex trafficking, they picture elaborate transnational networks. But Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking – just one of the numerous types of sex trafficking – takes place in our very backyards.

The state of California is vulnerable to human trafficking of all kinds, from drug smuggling in human “mules” to sexual exploitation. An abundance of poor, working class families, a large population of minors in the foster system, and a close vicinity to a national border are all contributing factors – and Los Angeles, along with San Francisco and San Diego, is one of the state’s three major hubs.

Just like in transnational sex trafficking, victims of domestic minor sex trafficking are deceived and coerced into sex work, deprived of documentation, and denied salaries and freedom of movement, maintain both social workers and local authorities. The key difference is the victim’s profiles and where they are forced to work.

Most of them are U.S. citizens and permanent residents, all of them are underaged. The victims are recruited at bus stops, schools, the local YMCA, and where ever else there are vulnerable children and predators.

“There are predators out there who know that this is a billion-dollar business. They use these bodies which cost them nothing and force them to engage in something they don’t want to do through mind games and manipulation,” said Saba Habte, a social worker in the Multi-Agency Response Team at Los Angeles’ Department of Children and Family Services.

Some kids are kidnapped, others apply for ordinary jobs at small businesses that end up being trafficking fronts, others are bullied into submission, while others are wooed by promises of love, food, shelter, and other basic necessities. Williams tracked her victims down on social media.

According to a 2019 Los Angeles county report, out of the 361 children qualifying for first responder care recovered from domestic minor sex trafficking situations from August 14, 2014 to August 14, 2018 in areas subjected to a special law enforcement protocol, 71 percent were African American (257 minors), 18 percent were Hispanic (65 minors), 10 percent were white (36 minors), and less than 1 percent were Native American (1 minor) or part of other groups (2 others).

Of the 361 victims, 359 were female and 2 were male, revealed the Q1 2019 county Integrated Leadership Team Quarterly Report. While boys and transgender youth are also trafficked, an overwhelming majority of victims in greater Los Angeles are female, because females are in higher demand. The objectification of women, consumerism, pornography, and the normalization of pornography in pop culture are to blame, said Amber Davies, head of the Los Angeles-based NGO Saving Innocence.

“Pornography functions much like an addiction: when people want more stimulation in their brains and bodies, so they’re not just going to settle for watching it, they’re going to try to act it out. ‘Johns’ – the clients who demand sex from these kids – often suffer from these addictions, which is why recovered kids describe violence in the acts that they are asked to perform,” said Davies, who has spent nearly a decade mentoring survivors of domestic minor sex trafficking.

The number of minors recovered in Los Angeles County annually has been increased steadily from August 2014 to August 2018, with 20 rescued in 2014, 40 in 2015, 157 in 2016, and 177 in 2017. In the nine years since its founding, Saving Innocence has helped about 800 underaged domestic trafficking victims, 200 of whom were “recovered” in 2018 alone, said Davies, who attributes this sudden surge to an increased awareness of the problem.

While the problem of domestic minor sex trafficking exists throughout California and the United States, Los Angeles has shown impressive recovery figures and extensive outreach capabilities compared with elsewhere in the state and even the country, with a total of 501 children recovered in Los Angeles County alone in the 2014-2018 period, according to local law enforcement. This second figure exceeds the previously cited figure of 361 because it reflects those children who may not qualify for support from California’s social services for any number of reasons, including the basic fact of having been trafficked from out of state.

Los Angeles’ high recovery numbers can be attributed both to the efficiency of the combat plan developed by local law enforcement and to an increasing awareness of domestic minor sex trafficking in recent years. “This is something that we’re finally addressing in L.A. county, something that had previously been swept under the rug,” said Habte, a specialized social worker whose unit focuses all of its resources on helping victims of human trafficking.

According to Habte and Davies, poverty, dysfunctional family lives, and a history of abuse are just several factors that make victims vulnerable to manipulation by sex traffickers.  Traffickers seek out kids with histories of trauma or developmental disorders; kids who might have trouble fitting in; or foster kids, who make up to 60 percent of victims, said Davies.

Eighty-five percent of the aforementioned 361 victims recovered in select areas of Los Angeles country from August 2014 to August 2018 had prior child welfare referrals.

Both Habte and Davies also see clear correlations between domestic sexual abuse in early childhood and an increased likelihood of falling victim to sex trafficking in later childhood and adolescence. Sixty percent of all recovered victims fall into this category, said Davies.

Perpetrators are usually people who are close to these kids and have access to them, from day-care teachers to karate teachers to any number of adults who interact with them on a regular basis. Cases of sexual abuse at the hands of total strangers are rare, though not impossible.

“Maybe it was Uncle Joe,” said Davies. “He said that this is what happens when two people love each other … and that’s a problem, because then, as they’re growing and there’s poverty or a conflict in the home, it’s easy for them to run to a boyfriend who might ask them to do these things, because in their minds they’ve already equated love, sex, and abuse.”

“It’s so hard to tackle, because we don’t know what’s happening in people’s homes,” said Habte. “This is why it’s so important to have child protective services involved and start working with these families when kids are young if a child is vocal about sexual abuse.”

A minority of victims may also be driven by popular culture, suggested Habte.

“I don’t know if they were being honest with me, but the last couple of girls I interviewed said that they were doing it to make money, be independent, to ‘live that life.’ There are a couple of popular social media pages and the girls on there are local celebrities in the world of human trafficking. So, you’re getting two different perspectives: one person is doing it for survival and another person is doing it to fit in,” said Habte.

Once in a trafficker’s grasp, kids find it nearly impossible to escape without help from the outside. Traffickers can threaten parents and siblings or emotionally manipulate victims into believing that their families no longer love them.

Williams threatened to kill one of her victims if she escaped, throwing bleach at the minor, beating her with a broomstick, and forcing her to get her tormentor’s name tattooed on her face, read an affidavit.

In sex industry jargon, Williams was a gorilla pimp – the aggressive type that kidnaps, beats, or threatens victims into submission. There are many others: from newcomer “popcorn pimps” (nicknamed “wannabes”) who run small operations; to CEO pimps, who make promises of stardom and business success; to Romeo pimps – the most common type – who woo their victims and coerce them into sex work through romantic bonds.

Female traffickers like Williams are rare. According to local law enforcement, the overwhelming majority of traffickers are heterosexual African American males aged 16 to 30, followed by heterosexual Hispanic males.

Casey Grace is an officer in the anti-human trafficking unit of the southeast division of the LAPD, patrolling a 12-14-square-mile district known for several heavily-populated areas with high volumes of prostitution.

Working in a mobile unit of five officers and a supervisor, Grace and his colleagues perform a variety of undercover operations to “recover” domestic minor sex trafficking victims.

 

“We could be operating out of the hotel, on the Internet, on the street in the middle of an ongoing trafficking situation. Ultimately, the goal of any sting is to safely lead the minor into an environment that is under our control – a so-called stale environment – and to get her and possibly her trafficker into custody,” said Grace.

The unit never embarks on an operation without fully verifying both tips and their sources, but, sometimes, evidence of trafficking is splattered openly across the Internet.

Williams, now 23, unabashedly plastered her trafficking and prostitution exploits across her Instagram and Twitter accounts, sharing images and memes that casually glorified pimping and teen pregnancy; posing in a wide range of sexually suggestive photos, some with her clients, others with her gun; and even posting videos of herself abusing and threatening her trafficking victims.

But as far as traffickers’ social media accounts go, William’s online presence was relatively tame: a simple scroll through the pages of her followers and cohorts reveals a cross-country network spanning from Dallas to Las Vegas and beyond. Here, on publicly accessible Twitter accounts, traffickers post sexually explicit, pornographic content – from images of erect penises to gifs of penetration; display photographs of generous stashes of illicit cash; reveal patterns of interstate and even transnational travel; and speak directly of their offerings: drugs and minors.

Traffickers’ penchants for social media are often the key to dismantling their networks, especially if, like Williams, they rely on Craigslist or similar platforms to advertise their victims to clients.

“We pose as clients all the time,” said Grace. Whether conversing online or in person, the first real step is to lure the victim and arrange a meeting.

“You start by trying to engage in conversation to determine whether [both parties agree that] there is going to be a sex act performed in exchange for money.” Sometimes, officers believe that they are interacting with a victim, but end up duped by disguised traffickers who are quick to throw law enforcement off their trails.

“It gets especially difficult when you are at LAX – a major international airport – and they have the victims migrate from hotel to hotel, because they are trying to shake your tactical ability to control that environment,” said Grace.

The language used by traffickers, victims, and Johns is variable, depending on the socio-economic backgrounds and even geographic origins of the people involved. “You really need to be able to adapt,” said Grace. “If they feel comfortable utilizing particular terms, you need to be ready to meet them at their communication level in an effort to build rapport.”

On rare occasions, conversations become explicit.

Trafficking lingo is constantly evolving to in an attempt to throw law enforcement officers off course. For example, “the track” was once used to describe a popular street with a lot of traffic where victims solicit sex, the likes of Compton Boulevard and Figueroa Street in Los Angeles. Today, “the track” is called “the blade.”

Once a victim and undercover officer is meet, the officer makes a judgment call on when to identify him or herself. “You need to choose the time wisely, making sure that they don’t get scared or think that they’re in trouble and run away, especially into traffic. The last thing that we want to do is use force to take them into custody. You want them to feel comfortable and safe,” insisted Grace.

If a victim starts fleeing, officers often choose to follow a short distance away, all the while communicating with victims to reassure them that they are not in trouble with the law and will not be hurt, punished, or arrested for sex work.

California decriminalized prostitution for minors with the passing of Assembly Bill 1322 in 2016. A first step towards an ongoing shift in culture, the law was campaigned for under the slogan “There’s no such thing as a ‘child prostitute’.” Unfortunately, punishments for “Johns” are almost non-existent.

As first responders, specialized social workers like Habte rush to the police station once a victim has been rescued. Their job is to determine the who, when, where, why, and how of the victim’s situation.

“Before starting the interview, we try to give them something to make them feel comfortable, like a blanket,” said Habte. “A lot of these girls are in nothing but a bra and underwear or short shorts when they get picked up. Recently, a girl was wearing a lace leotard.”

Conducted largely in private, the interviews start gently. “We always asked them ‘what led you here?’ which allows them to share their story.”

Later on, social workers proceed to more specific questions to determine whether coercion was involved, how long a victim was trafficked for, where the minor was sleeping, whether the minor had been assaulted, and whether any drugs or alcohol were involved.

“A lot of the time,” said Habte, “they were.”

Advocacy group Saving Innocence typically arrives on the 30-45 minutes later.

“We provide them with a crisis backpack, which can include a change of clothes, food, water, etc. We take them shopping. If they need hygiene products, we have tons stacked in our office, and they can come and get as much as they need,” said Davies.

Minors are also taken to a county hospital for a medical assessment.

Habte looks into the victims’ home environments to determine whether it would be safe for the minors to go back to their families of origin. Reintegrating trafficking survivors into their former communities is a challenge, because the risk of discrimination or bullying is ever-present.

“The best-case scenario is that the families welcome the girls with open arms and accept help from social services to prevent victims from going back out onto the streets,” said Habte. This is often the case if a child comes from a stable household, but ended up in sex trafficking after being kidnapped.

But this scenario is uncommon. Sometimes, minors and their parents require a break, in which case social workers might temporarily place children in relatives’ homes. On other occasions, parents might be deemed capable of providing their children with stable homes, but are not allowed to do so because it is simply unsafe if traffickers remain at large and know where their victims live.

Other minors run away from home with little intention of going back, preferring to live on the streets with their friends or romantic partners. Finally, many kids end up on the streets, because they tried to escape abusive homes of origin.

A scarcity of foster families willing to accommodate recovered minors means that most of the kids who cannot be placed back with their families of origin end up in transitional shelters or group homes.

Group homes provide a bed and a shower, but little emotional stability, hindering the recovery process. Sometimes, minors are retraumatized in group homes after running into someone they knew while being trafficked. Such undesired encounters are more likely to happen than not, said Habte, because recovered minors are often placed in the same homes, paradoxically, to prevent bullying and encourage collective healing.

Regardless of where victims end up, they often struggle to find their feet in society. “Peers are mean, they’ll call them names, create stigmas around their experiences. So, it’s common for these kids to change schools and even go to alternative schools that can accommodate more flexible schedules,” said Davies.

As kids move along in the recovery process, Saving Innocence becomes a big sister-like mentoring program. “We meet with kids every week or every other week, help them set goals and work towards those goals. We really build rapport with them, help them learn to trust people again, and just allow these kids to be kids by creating opportunities for fun.

“Technically, we do close cases, but we always keep our doors open for the older kids we’ve maintained a relationship with over the years, if that makes sense. We recognize that we’re a resource,” Davies said. The youngest child the NGO is currently helping is eight years old, while the oldest, now an adult, is 23.

Saving Innocence monitors kids as their situation stabilizes, communicates with social services and counselors on the kids’ behalf, helps them gain access to holistic care, and even walks them through any legal proceedings against traffickers, though most victims are reluctant to testify.

“I’ve never interviewed a girl who’s given me the name of her trafficker,” said Habte. “Many of them tell me: ‘I’m a renegade. I’m working by myself.’ But that’s not necessarily true, because they have tattoos on them that indicate that they’ve been marked.” The tattoos come in a variety of formats, from initials standing for their pimp’s name to crowns to combinations of the two. “These tattoos mean that they belong to that person,” said Habte.

Girls who admit that they have been trafficked often refuse to name their traffickers. “Sometimes these kids still believe they love these men,” said Davies. “Some of them can’t accept that what happened to them was exploitation … I don’t know about full-blown Stockholm syndrome, but I think they definitely have trauma bonds. Just like domestic violence victims and cult survivors, they develop chemical bonds with [the perpetrator] as the only other person who knows exactly what they’ve experienced.”

The stigma and shame surrounding the trafficking experience makes many survivors reluctant to reflect on their trauma before they have found stable, long-term placements. Once they have, Saving Innocence often steps in to help survivors find trained trauma therapists who practice a wide breadth of evidence-based healing techniques, including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, somatic experiencing, and tapping.

Even after therapy, some kids continue to self-identify as victims. “I think it varies depending on their perception of how normal or how deviant their experience was,” said Davies.

“Healthy self-perception comes with maturity and self-awareness. If they begin to see their own value and purpose outside of their past exploitation, they start to put their foot down in terms of what they deserve and what type of relationship they would like to be in. I think it’s a lifelong struggle and there are so many factors that contribute to resilience. It varies from person-to-person.”

Raisa Ostapenko is a visiting doctoral scholar at Columbia University (SIPA/J-School). A print, broadcast, and investigative journalist, historian, and documentary filmmaker, she splits her time between New York (her hometown) and Paris, where she is pursuing a PhD in Slavic/East European Studies at the Sorbonne. Twitter: @RaisaOstapenko

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