This week, a new state law is in effect aimed at protecting children who are victims of sexual abuse.
Law enforcement officers in California no longer can arrest youth suspects for prostitution.
Maheen Kaleem, a staff attorney with Rights4Girls, which advocated for the law, says minors inherently don’t have the same legal powers as adults, so they can’t consent to prostitution, and that pimps use threats of arrest as a way to keep minors from breaking free.
“Incarceration of victims really gets in the way of getting these children on the path to healing that they need, because exploiters are telling children, ‘If you go to law enforcement, if you seek help, all they will do is arrest you,’” Kaleem states.
Of just over 1,000 human trafficking cases reported in California this year, about 1 in 4 involved a child.
Kaleem says the new law shifts guilt away from these young people, and toward those who are traffickers or customers of the sex trade. Fifteen other states have also passed like-minded laws.
The problem involves many demographic pockets of children and is often connected to the international drug trade, Kaleem says.
She explains it isn’t that agencies or law enforcement see these children as criminals, but that options have been limited when faced with these cases.
“A lot of it was that they didn’t feel like they had an alternative,” Kaleem points out. “And if it’s a choice between leaving that child on the street and arresting that child, they were going to arrest the child, because at least then, they knew where the child was. The family court could get involved.
“Now that this protocol, and protocols like it, exist in other counties, it was very clear that there was another alternative.”
But that better alternative is not without complications. Kaleem says the majority of the cases she sees come from the child welfare system, where caseworkers are now being asked to learn these new protocols.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted last week to rebrand and expand its network of safe havens for victims of child sex trafficking.
Supervisor Don Knabe recommended the change to the Safe House Program.
“When we launched the Safe House Program nearly 20 years ago, we had no idea our children would need protection from monsters looking to sexually exploit them for money,” Knabe said. “These kids are threatened with brutal abuse and violence against themselves and their families if they attempt to escape or do not make their quota.”
The program, originally designed to provide a temporary safe place for any child or adult facing a threatening situation with nowhere to run, includes all county fire stations. It will now explicitly serve victims of child sex trafficking.
“Instead of waiting to be rescued by law enforcement, victims of child sex trafficking will be able to proactively seek out a safe place to hide from their pimp or trafficker and be connected with life-saving wrap-around services that will empower them to escape life on the streets and seek a better and brighter future,” Knabe said.
Knabe drew parallels to the Safe Surrender Program, which allows mothers to surrender an infant that is no more than three days old to any county fire station or hospital, as long as the infant shows no signs of abuse. Since that program began in 2001, 145 infants have been surrendered.
A county team will work on identifying more facilities for what will now be called the Los Angeles County Safe Youth Zone Program, as well as designing a protocol for helping children and detailing plans for training county employees and educating residents.
A report is expected back in 60 days.