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LA County lobbies for more funds to fight child sex trafficking

Child sex trafficking survivor
Child sex trafficking survivor "Jessica," seen here with L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe, now works with other victims.
Kitty Felde/KPCC

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Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe is in Washington to look for more funding to fight child sex trafficking. L.A. isn’t the only place in America fighting this problem. Nearly nine out of 10 large counties identify it as a major or minor problem in their jurisdiction.

Knabe on Tuesday unveiled a survey from the National Association of Counties that examined the national problem of forcing of children under age 18 into prostitution. Eighty-six percent of counties with populations greater than half a million people identify child sex trafficking as a problem; 40 percent say it’s a problem that's growing.

L.A. County has a head start on the rest of the country in identifying the issue and finding federal dollars to help fight the problem. The county received a three-year grant of nearly $2 million, split between the probation department and county courts for staff training and a special court. Now, the county wants to expand the program.

The federal grant from the Department of Justice paid for training for 5,000 judges, attorneys and county staff in how to identify the young people trapped in prostitution. It also paid for an isolated courtroom where a response team provides medical and mental health services, as well as housing, education and training.

Knabe says in the past, children arrested for prostitution were often “released, given a slap on the wrist, [then sent] back out into the parking lot into the hands of their scumbag dude, right outside a courthouse door.”

Knabe says there's a link between sex trafficking and foster care. Eight of ten minors brought in on prostitution charges in L.A. County are already known either through foster care or the juvenile justice system. "Clearly much more needs to be done to identify vulnerable minors and put prevention programs in place," Knabe said.

Knabe was joined by a 29-year old woman identified only as "Jessica," who spent a decade of her young life being transported from Hollywood to Florida for sex trade. She now works for L.A. County, assisting other young victims as they testify against their pimps. She asked reporters not to label her and other young victims as prostitutes. "Trust me, no 12-year-old would choose this."

Wednesday, a House committee will vote on a bill co-sponsored by Congressman Ted Poe, a Texas Republican who joined Knabe at the National Press Club. The bill would increase fines for those convicted of trafficking and set up a fund for victims. Poe wants more safe havens, pointing out that there are 5,000 animal shelters in the U.S., but just 300 beds for the victims of child sex trafficking in the entire country. California lawmakers are also considering several child sex trafficking bills that would increase jail time and allow wiretaps to trap traffickers.

How to spot possible child sex traffic victims? 

Jessica and Knabe offer these clues: