Many women working the 17 different prostitution tracks in Los Angeles say they entered the life as young as teenagers. But now juvenile professionals are reexamining how those young women make that choice and if it really is a choice.
“With me molestation played a part,” said D’Lita Miller, 38, a former sex worker from Compton who started prostituting when she was a teenager. “I had my first kid when I was 15. It was more of a survival thing.”
Miller said she felt rejected by her parents, who left her to be raised by her grandmother. Prostitution was a way to make money and get by, but it also made her feel like she was wanted and needed by the men who paid her.
Somehow Miller managed to leave the streets behind until last year, when she realized her own 16-year-old daughter was about to start down the same path.
Long Beach police arrested her daughter one Friday night when they found her serving as lookout for a friend, another teen girl, who was in a car with a man who had paid for oral sex. Miller’s daughter had fallen into the arms of a 22-year-old pimp who was a gang member.
“A lot of times that's the new thing. Crack is whack now, “Miller said. “You get a girl. You flip her. You don't even have to stand on the block anymore. You just put her out there. She'll take the case."
And, most of the time, the girls do. The Los Angeles County Probation Department estimates that in 2010, 174 minor girls were in juvenile camps, detention, or on probation for prostitution charges.
“Wow, we've always had these kids in our system and just never looked at them as victims but more as offenders,” said Michelle Guymon, director of placement administrative services for the L.A. County Probation Department.
Criminal gangs, like an Oceanside clique of the Crips gang, market young girls online for sex using websites such as craigslist.com, backpage.com, and Facebook. Pimping girls is considered low-risk and high profit because a girl can sell herself several times a night. Some pimps make an average of $500 a night from each girl they manage in what is referred to as a “stable” of women. Also, minors tend to get shorter jail sentences than older women if they are arrested for prostitution.
“Some of these young girls would come to a court and be treated like a criminal. They get their hands slapped, they send them away, they walk outside and their pimp is waiting for them in the parking lot,” said L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe.
His district is in South L.A. County where most of the girls in juvenile custody have been identified as victims of sex trafficking because they were forced, coerced, or physically beaten and threatened into prostitution. They live in cities such as Long Beach, Compton, and Inglewood. The county’s probation department received a $1 million grant this year to focus on sexually exploited children. County officials are piloting a new 18-month rehabilitation program for girls 16 and younger who are right now in juvenile custody on prostitution charges.
“The idea behind it is that we want to give these kids more attention and more support than they would normally get through conventional probation,” said Commissioner Catherine Pratt, who presides over the new Compton juvenile courtroom established specifically for the program.
Law enforcement, the judge, probation officers, prosecutors and mentors meet with the girls regularly. They work on improving self-esteem. Counselors work through abuse issues she experienced either at home or on the street. Job and educational skills are addressed and most importantly, said Guymon, they try to find a life-long mentor or guardian to connect with her so she gets a call on her birthday when no one’s around or has a place to come home to for the holidays.
"A lot of these kids run away from home. That's how it all started for them. Stress in the family, stress at home, long-term foster care kids that don't have a connection so it was very easy to connect to (her pimp) and the bonding they've done with him and we've got to undo,” Guymon said.
It’s called trauma bonding, experts say. At a conference for the 40 girls enrolled in the new program, a 14-year-old stands up and says she’s had her fair share of beatings from her pimp and that she really want to change her life, but there’s 15 percent of her that yearning for him, in love with him.
“This is something that they are mentally conformed and trained to be,” said Withelma Ortiz-Macey, 22, speaking from experience. She met her trafficker when she was 10.
“From 10 to 14, I didn’t have any chest. I didn’t have any little hips. But one of things my exploiter did was, he had certain rules. So no tennis shoes, no ponytails, no pants. This would give off the illusion that I was older, but I wasn’t,” she said.
Ortiz-Macey, a former foster care kid from Oakland, left the streets and her trafficker at 17 with the help of a court-appointed advocate. She now works with other sexually exploited girls to help them escape the life. Glamour magazine named her one of its Women of the Year in 2011 for creating awareness around the growing problem.
The efforts to decriminalize girls who become victims of manipulation, torture and threat by their pimps are sometimes easier said than done. For example, Commissioner Catherine Pratt says she struggles when deciding whether to detain a girl, but believes that sometimes it is the best place for her, especially if she is testifying against her pimp in court or to prevent her from going AWOL on services.
“The best and most effective services are being given through the juvenile justice system right now. So the reality is if these kids don’t get arrested and put on probation, the chances of them getting help are pretty low,” she said.
The flip side is that sometimes teens can stay confined as long as some violent criminals are.
Kim Biddle heads up the anti-human trafficking advocacy group Saving Innocence, a partner in L.A. County’s new juvenile program for sexually exploited children. She said if children are going to have to be victims and criminals at the same time, then the justice brought for the crimes against them should be worth it.
“It's really not fair to ask a child to go through that level of trauma if a guy is going to walk out in six months,” she said.
That all can change in a few months when California voters will decide in November whether to stiffen jail sentencing for people convicted of sex trafficking. The ballot initiative, known as the CASE Act, would require convicted sex traffickers to register as sex offenders. There are various proposed bills in the state legislature dealing with sex trafficking, including one that would require convicted traffickers pay back the money they made off the people they’ve exploited.