Part one in a three part series on Alameda County’s battle with child prostitution
OAKLAND (BCN) – On a gray, drizzly afternoon last March, it was mostly empty along Oakland’s “Track,” a section of International Boulevard in the middle of the city that is known as a hub for prostitution.
As the sun occasionally pierced through the clouds onto the bars, restaurants and shops that line the street, a young African American girl in a T-shirt and skinny jeans stood behind a bus stop at 29th Street, rubbing her arms against the cold.
“There’s one,” Oakland police Officer Hamann Nguyen said as he drove by in an undercover police car.
Nguyen was pointing out underage girls working as prostitutes, a long-recognized problem in Alameda County that experts agree is only getting worse.
Juvenile prostitution has reached epidemic proportions in Oakland, according to Sgt. Holly Joshi, a spokeswoman for the department who spent three years with Oakland’s vice and child exploitation unit.
Nearly all the girls on the streets are controlled by pimps who claim their earnings, and many start as early as age 12 or 13.
They therefore aren’t really prostitutes; they are commercially sexually-exploited youth.
“Underage kids can’t give consent to have sex, let alone sell it,” Joshi said.
Federal law classifies recruiting minors for prostitution as a form of human trafficking, meaning they’re understood to be victims of both civil rights violations and violent crime, such as statutory rape and other sex crimes.
Most of the girls recruited for prostitution come from broken homes and have been physically or sexually abused, according to service providers with Alameda County.
Ever since commercial sexual exploitation of youth was identified as a major problem in Alameda County about 10 years ago, public officials have responded with progressive policies that recognize the girls as victims; aggressive prosecution that has put pimps away for life; and regional collaborations that have become models for other cities.
But experts agree that trafficking of minors is so low-risk and so lucrative for the pimps that growth of the criminal enterprise is outpacing legal and law enforcement developments—even in Alameda County, where a decade of awareness has led to prevention, suppression and rehabilitation techniques that are considered the national gold standard.
Nature Of The Game
By the time “Samantha,” a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, was 10, her father was in jail and her mother was a drug addict who had exploited her daughter to fuel her own addiction, according to the Oakland nonprofit Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth, or MISSSEY.
Samantha was removed from her mother’s care and placed in a string of foster homes, and by age 12 she was being sexually abused and exploited by a pimp. Three years later, she was living on her own—and continuing to be sexually exploited—when police finally arrested her and identified her as a juvenile, thus beginning her long process of recovery.
Alameda County officials identify hundreds of girls every year like Samantha who are working as prostitutes, controlled by physically and psychologically abusive pimps who take advantage of runaways, foster children and other at-risk youth.
Nearly all of the women and girls working Oakland’s streets and motels are controlled by pimps, who can make hundreds of thousands of dollars each year with a five-girl “stable,” or group of prostitutes under their control, according to Sgt. Joshi.
It’s a far different situation than the one police encountered during the 1970s and 1980s, according to Oakland police Officer Jim Saleda, who for years has overseen the department’s vice and child exploitation unit.
Pimps used to be groomed by a dad or uncle and welcomed to the profession, he explained. They called pimping the “gentlemen’s game” because they stayed out of other types of crime.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Saleda said. “This was never a gentlemen’s game. There were beatings—these pimps were always parasites.”
But pimps used to consider themselves in a class above drug dealers and gangsters, he said. Gunplay was rarely involved in prostitution, and the women working the streets were adults with a distinctive look.
Now, pimps try to make their girls blend in, giving them backpacks and jeans so they will be mistaken for students instead of identified as commercially sexually-exploited youth.
They target girls who have been neglected at best and abused at worst; a survey conducted by the county in 2007 found that 61 percent of the area’s sexually exploited youth had been raped at least once prior to being exploited, and were on average 11 years old during the first attack.
About 55 percent of the girls identified were foster care youth, and 25 percent had been hospitalized at least once for a mental illness or episode, the study said.
Joshi said only a few of the girls she has worked with were in school, and most of them dropped out as they became more involved with their pimps.
Although there are cases of “guerilla pimps” who kidnap the girls and hold them against their will, most common are “Romeo pimps” who go through a calculated process that fosters an entrenched combination of fear and trauma bonding, said Barbara Loza-Muriera, facilitator of the county’s Sexually Exploited Minors Network.
She said the pimps use five steps to ensnare the girls: recruitment, seduction, isolation, coercion and violence. They go after girls who aren’t just running from something but who are looking for it, and they capitalize on the adage that negative attention is still attention.
“Kids love it when somebody older shows interest,” Loza-Muriera said.
One recruitment tactic is to go to a mall and compliment girls who walk by, Joshi said. The ones who are dismissive—or just say “thank you” and go on their way—are not the ones the pimps want, she said.
The girls who light up at the compliment or stop to chat are the ones the pimp will offer to buy a meal for or otherwise try to get to know, she said.
Loza-Muriera said she often asks people to think about their worst day—a day when they’re feeling sad or ugly. Add to that being a foster child, and having nobody pay attention to you, she says.
Then someone tells you, full of sincerity and warmth, “You are so amazing,” or, “You are so beautiful.”
“You can see how that compliment would be like water to a plant,” she said.
The child starts thinking constantly about the pimp, who at this point is still just an increasingly attentive friend. He collects information about her, learning about her hopes, dreams and fears. Later when he wants something from her, he will promise to send her to visit her grandmother in Texas, or he will threaten to attack her little sister in Richmond.
The pimp then begins to isolate the girl, to occupy as much of her world as he can, Loza-Muriera said. Eventually he begins asking her to turn tricks, maybe saying at first that it will just be a few times so they can get a house together.
He will introduce her to violence to show her how powerful he is, implicitly saying that he can both protect her and use his influence against her. He will have her hold his gun or witness a gang rape.
Eventually the girls are both terrified of and attached to their pimps, Joshi said. They think they’re in real, romantic relationships with them, even though they know the pimps have the same relationship with many other girls.
“They’re the most manipulative criminals I’ve ever come in contact with,” said Joshi, whose police work has involved serving on Drug Enforcement Agency task forces that dealt with latino drug-ddealing gangs. “They’re the most hardcore, manipulative, callous criminals.”
The pimps usually have their girls start working the Track in Oakland near 15th Avenue or 16th Avenue, where there are fewer cars, hotels and police.
The girls get used to the work before they take them to busier areas where the street numbers hit the 40s and 50s. Many of the more experienced teens work there; those girls might be 15 or 16 rather than 13 or 14, Joshi said.
From about 60th Avenue out to San Leandro, the Track becomes more destitute. Many of the women working there are junkies doing sex favors for $5 to $20 — about one-tenth of what most girls charge per trick—to feed their addictions.
The addicts are generally the only prostitutes in Oakland who aren’t working for pimps, Joshi said. The others last maybe two or three days before they’re recruited. Female undercover officers who work prostitution stings are usually approached by at least one pimp every night.
It can be difficult at first to identify girls working as prostitutes because it’s their behavior on the street, as opposed to their appearance, that sets them apart, Joshi said.
Girls working as prostitutes sit at bus stops even after all the lines have passed at least once. They try to make eye contact with drivers as they walk, or they gesture at passing cars instead of focusing on getting from point A to B.
Unless they know what to look for, “People probably drive past girls they think are going to school but are being exploited,” Joshi said.
Scope Of The Problem
Statistics about the commercial sexual exploitation of youth remain elusive thanks to the underground nature of the crime and a lack of official data-collection protocols. Experts agree, however, that Atlanta and Oakland are two of the biggest trouble spots in the country.
Neither the California Department of Justice nor the FBI collect data on human trafficking arrests, so it’s up to local agencies and non-governmental organizations to determine and document the scope of domestic trafficking of minors.
This means there’s no consistent system used to organize the information.
The FBI’s National Incident Based Reporting System is being modified to collect trafficking arrest data in the future, but the state DOJ dropped its anti-trafficking efforts in 2008 when budget issues forced the closure of its Crime and Violence Prevention Center.
On average, 200 kids are referred each year to Alameda County’s Sexually Exploited Minor Network, according to Loza-Muriera. Another 120 exploited youth are case-managed from previous years.
“The referrals come from schools, teen clinics, probation, law enforcement, district attorneys, public defenders, social services, schools,” Loza-Muriera said.
About 60 percent of referrals in Alameda County come from law enforcement, according to one survey. The Oakland Police Department targets young-looking girls working on the street or being sold over the Internet, and sometimes girls arrested on theft or truancy charges also turn out to be working as prostitutes.
Other referrals come from health clinics and community organizations, and a few girls have even referred themselves, which used to be unheard of, Loza-Muriera said. The numbers only represent confirmed cases, though, and countless more are suspected each year.
State and local arrest data also provide some insight into relative rates of commercial sexual exploitation of children.
In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, 76 underage girls were arrested on suspicion of prostitution in Oakland out of a total of 549 prostitution arrests, according to the FBI.
That means Oakland alone accounted for about 8.5 percent of the country’s 893 juvenile prostitution arrests in 2009 (excluding New York, which doesn’t report to the FBI). California was responsible for 426 of those arrests.
Los Angeles, which has a population of about 3.8 million compared to Oakland’s 390,000, logged 69 of the arrests. Oakland appears to have many more exploited youth per capita, but is hard to make many concrete conclusions about the scope of the problem from those numbers since cities vary in their enforcement efforts.
Oakland also receives grant money in ebbs and flows to combat trafficking, so arrest statistics depend in part on department resources, Sgt. Joshi said.
In 2005, Oakland was awarded a U.S. Department of Justice grant that allowed it to focus on human trafficking starting in 2006, according to Lt. Kevin Wiley, who started the department’s vice and child exploitation unit.
As a result, he said, underage prostitution arrests jumped from six in 2006 to 41 in 2007. In 2008, juveniles comprised almost 20 percent of the Oakland Police Department’s prostitution arrests, or 50 out of 255.
“Nearly 100 percent of our cases are initiated as a result of proactive vice operations,” Wiley said. “If we stop doing proactive enforcement/rescues, the numbers will decrease, but the problem will remain and only get worse.”
The Oakland Police Department has also found that most girls who run away will be contacted by a pimp by the second time they leave home, Joshi said, even if they are only gone for 24 hours.
The department set up a new system in early 2010 in which the third time a runaway is entered into the system, she’s flagged for intervention, Joshi said.
“We want to let her know that running away is high risk in Oakland,” she said. “Maybe a pimp has contacted her and given her his number, or she worked one time and hated it. That’s when you get her. When she’s in the lifestyle and her immunity has built up, that’s when it’s hard to get her out.”
The Oakland Police Department’s runaway intervention program is just one of the ways law enforcement and service providers in Alameda County are national leaders in the fight against domestic sex trafficking of minors.
When Joshi was in the child and sexual exploitation unit, she and Saleda regularly visited schools, churches, and community centers to give talks about the signs of sexual exploitation, she said.
Oakland’s was the second police department in the country—after Dallas—to begin recognizing the girls as victims, and the agency works with Bay Area Women Against Rape and other nonprofits to make sure the girls have advocates throughout their arrests and legal proceedings, Joshi said.
Although the girls working the streets are arrested, the Police Department and Alameda County District Attorney’s Office lobby to have prostitution charges dropped as long as the girls agree to enter a program or otherwise work toward rehabilitation.
Even the girls who are convicted of prostitution eventually end up having their records cleared, said Assistant Public Defender Aundrea Brown, who is assigned to represent sexually exploited youth in court.
Juvenile court operates differently than the adult legal process, she said. Youth can enter informal probation programs without admitting guilt, and formal convictions are replaced by “findings” against offenders.
Further, prostitution is a misdemeanor offense, which means it does not need to be reported on job applications that ask for disclosure of felony arrests.
“We are certainly taking our precautions to make sure this does not follow them throughout their adult lives,” Brown said.
Several nonprofits declined to help set up interviews with former sexually exploited youth, saying that even as adults the women could be in danger if their former pimps recognized them talking to the media.
Interviewing a girl still going through the legal process is extremely difficult because it requires permission from the girl, her guardians and the judge, and court records are sealed in juvenile cases.
The county continues to endorse arrest because officials say arresting the girls is the only way police can isolate them from their pimps long enough to start eroding the emotional attachment the pimps have fostered.
Most of the arrests are made during undercover stings, which alternately target Johns and prostitutes. The department runs undercover stings every month, and the vice and child exploitation unit works to recruit female patrol officers to pose as prostitutes.
Three undercover officers working several hours can bust about 80 would-be Johns, but the real victories are the one or two pimps who to try to recruit the undercover officers each time they go out.
Male undercover officers also pose as Johns. One night in March, a four-hour undercover operation netted 24 prostitutes, six of whom were underage, Joshi said.
The vice and child exploitation unit also has a grant-funded officer dedicated solely to online exploitation who works with the San Jose Internet Crimes Against Children task force to stay up to date on Web-based investigative techniques.
The cases against the pimps are then turned over to Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Bock at the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. Bock prosecuted the state’s first child sex trafficking case in 2006 and helped create the Human Exploitation and Trafficking, or HEAT, Watch, a multi-agency model to combat trafficking, in early 2010.
In May of that year, Bock was one of two deputy district attorneys who accompanied District Attorney Nancy O’Malley to Washington, D.C., to discuss the program with the president’s Domestic Policy Council.
HEAT Watch received a $300,000 Department of Justice grant the following August for its work with Internet crimes against children.
Difficulties Of Suppression
Despite these accomplishments, the general consensus appears to be that domestic sex trafficking of minors is outpacing suppression and prevention efforts, with opinions about progress ranging from “just scratching the surface” to outright “losing the battle.”
“It’s growing faster than we can keep up with,” Officer Mark Rhoden of the vice and child exploitation unit said. “It’s exponential in opposite directions because as it grows, we lose manpower.”
Oakland’s budget crisis has led to deep cuts in the Police Department; 80 officers were laid off last year, although 24 were recently rehired.
The vice and child exploitation unit is down from five members to four—two of whom are grant funded—and the unit’s overtime budget is strained, Joshi said.
She said the vice unit is unique in that its members do both police and investigative work.
“Normally the street team hands a case off to investigators to follow through,” Joshi said. “Vice has to do day and night work.”
The team sees each case from beginning to end, developing targets, going undercover, working with the district attorney’s office, appearing in court, and corroborating witness testimonies, Joshi said.
She said the unit needs a bigger overtime budget and more equipment, such as undercover cars and an alternate facility.
“The undercover cars are used over and over again,” Joshi said. “You can get burned.”
The unit also doesn’t do as many pimp stings as it used to because the overall department cuts have made it difficult to find the necessary funds and personnel, she said.
Police Chief Anthony Batts acknowledged that the city is struggling to get ahead of its prostitution problem and said the Police Department needs a unit dedicated to vice and narcotics.
He said about 60 percent of the city’s vice crimes are now tied to drug dealing or gang violence, so integrating the two law enforcement arms is becoming imperative.
“The ultimate impact will be having that dedicated unit,” he said.
Having enough staff to aggressively fight sexual exploitation of children is especially important for two reasons, according to FBI Special Agent Marty Parker, who has worked on domestic trafficking in Oakland for 10 years.
First, more and more men are turning to pimping as a low-risk, lucrative alternative to drug and arms dealing. Second, by the nature of prostitution, it’s easy for law enforcement to access the girls but difficult to get to the men who are exploiting them.
The pimps set up physical and psychological barriers to protect themselves from police, who now also have the Internet to contend with.
“We do have some ways to get around that, both high-tech and the less sophisticated means,” Parker said, although she declined to elaborate on law enforcement’s methods for reaching past the girls and getting to their abusers.
“But we always feel like we’re one step behind,” she added. “Prostitution growth is outpacing law enforcement progress.”
Human trafficking is now tied with arms dealing as the world’s second-largest criminal enterprise, just behind drug dealing, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It’s also the fastest-growing illegal industry in the world.
A pimp with five or six girls working seven nights per week, $80 to $200 per trick, can make $600,000 annually, Joshi said.
Overhead costs are also much lower compared to drug dealing because there’s no product to buy or package. Pimps can both use and sell their product over and over again, and exploited children have minimal needs.
Three fast food meals a day, a hair and nail appointment from time to time, and a motel room—which a John will often purchase in exchange for the girl’s first trick of the night—are all it takes to keep the girls in business, Joshi said.
Pimping is also much lower risk than dealing drugs, which requires being out in the open and in danger of police or rival dealers, she said. A pimp can keep an eye on his girls from a safe distance.
“If you’re a pimp, what do you do?” Joshi said. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing except sell false dreams to girls who stand out there all day. You say you offer protection, but even if you have a gun, you’re not there. How are you offering protection?”
Joshi and others agree that pimps flock to Oakland because of its reputation as a Mecca of street culture and its endless victim base.
Pimping is glamorized in music, movies and TV—the song “It’s hard out here for a pimp” from “Hustle and Flow” even won an Academy Award in 2006 — and Oakland in particular has come to be associated with the sex trade, Joshi said.
The city is also rife with at-risk girls, many from broken homes.
Some have come to Alameda County from other parts of the Bay Area.
According to Parker, the more the community learns to recognize these girls and appreciate the circumstances that brought them to this point, the sooner Alameda County can start to get a handle on the problem.
“A culture shift would certainly be a huge step,” she said. “People need to see this is a big issue and see these girls aren’t just out there because they want to be.”
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