Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew was just a baby when she first entered the foster care system. By the time she was eighteen years old, she had been in fourteen different foster care placements. She also had spent seven years as a sexually exploited youth on the streets of Oakland.
But her childhood trauma didn’t stop there. She said she also was repeatedly victimized by the juvenile justice system. “I was alone and terrified,” said Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, referring to the times when police arrested her as a young teen for solicitation and then locked her up in juvenile detention.
Ortiz Walker Pettigrew’s story is not uncommon. Sexually exploited youth are bought and sold every night on Oakland’s streets. According to the FBI, the Bay Area is one of thirteen child trafficking hot spots nationwide, and Oakland is at the center of the problem.
As is the case for many youth who have been sexually exploited, Ortiz Walker Pettigrew’s childhood was marked by neglect and various forms of abuse. She was shuffled around to so many foster care homes that, by age ten, when she met a man who promised to take care of her, she was not surprised there was also a catch: According to Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, he expected her to earn her keep by selling herself on International Boulevard, and beat her if she did not return with $1,000 each night.
Adults who sexually exploit children for profit — like the one who took advantage of Ortiz Walker Pettigrew — typically prey on vulnerable kids who have already endured years of trauma, according to advocates for youth. These exploiters (more commonly referred to as “pimps” — a term that youth advocates say does not accurately portray these abusive adult-child relationships) actively recruit kids from the state’s most vulnerable youth populations: runaways, foster-care children, and continuation school students. They then coerce or force the children to sell their bodies to passing motorists or to work in dingy motels and massage parlors.
But it’s the kids — not the exploiters — who usually end up getting arrested by police and put in a cell. “I was picked up over and over,” said Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, who is now 24 and is an activist working to help sexually exploited children. “I was sent to juvie and left alone in a cell for days.
“The staff didn’t understand the nature of exploitation,” she continued, referring to the guards who kept her locked up. “They shamed me and treated me like a criminal.”
Like many advocates for sexually exploited youth, Ortiz Walker Pettigrew contends that the current practice in California and elsewhere of incarcerating kids who had been coerced or forced into the sex trade re-victimizes these children and doesn’t help them escape their abusers. “Detention does not equal prevention to me,” she said. “Leaving a child isolated in a cement room is the same thing the exploiter does.”
Police and prosecutors, however, defend the system, arguing that locking up kids is the only effective way to separate them from their exploiters and connect them to social services. Law enforcement officials note that sexually exploited minors often distrust social services, and that walkouts from shelters or residential treatment centers are common. “We take them to detention because it’s the safest place for them,” said Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Madden. “Sometimes it is necessary to detain them for a brief period for their own safety. If we didn’t do anything here, I don’t think we would be able to identify as many [exploited youth] or provide as many services.”
But other advocates for sexually exploited children contend that the child welfare system, which is designed to protect abused kids, is better suited to help youth than the juvenile justice system. They also argue that laws need to change in order to recognize child sexual exploitation as a form of child abuse, so that kids aren’t treated as criminals. “It seems to me that no matter what we believe, our current practice of incarcerating youth says: ‘You’ve done something wrong and that’s why we’re locking you up and charging you with a crime,'” said Jodie Langs, policy director of WestCoast Children’s Clinic, an Oakland-based children’s psychology clinic. “This conveys the same thing that their traffickers do — that no one cares what happens to you.”
Advocates say that, rather than being processed through the juvenile delinquency court, which tries cases involving children who have committed crimes, sexually exploited youth should be sent to juvenile dependency court, which processes children who have experienced abuse.
Last month, Governor Jerry Brown and the state legislature responded to some of the concerns raised by youth advocates by agreeing to create the Commercially Sexually Exploited Children Program, and to provide funding for it of $5 million this year, and $14 million each year thereafter. The program will enable California’s child welfare services to develop the capacity to assist and serve sexually exploited youth.
Advocates consider the new funding and passage of Senate Bill 855, which created the program, to be a big step forward. SB 855 states that a child who is a victim of sexual exploitation can be sent to a county’s dependency system, commonly known as child welfare. However, the bill still gives juvenile court judges the authority to treat sexually exploited minors as criminals.
A recent report from the California Child Welfare Council, a state advisory body, revealed that child exploiters actively seek out group homes and foster care residences to recruit kids. The 2012 report, “Ending the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children,” estimated that 50 to 85 percent of sexually exploited kids are involved in the foster care system in some way.
“One girl described foster care as the prime training ground for her future exploitation,” said Stacey Katz, executive director of WestCoast Children’s Clinic. “Her feeling was that her foster care experience had already taught her that when someone cared for her it came with a price tag.”
The Child Welfare Council’s report also outlined risk factors for exploitation; the most alarming characteristic identified was the young age of children involved in the sex trade. “Exploiters target younger children because they are easiest to manipulate and deceive,” the report explained.
The average age of an exploited child in Oakland is twelve, according to the Oakland Police Department — and is getting lower. Statewide data shows that early adolescence — between ages eleven to thirteen for boys and ages twelve to fourteen for girls — is the time during which children most commonly fall victim to commercial sexual exploitation.
The added trauma caused by sexual exploitation results in devastating emotional and mental health problems for kids. Children who have been sexually exploited often become substance abusers and suffer serious mental illnesses by the time they reach adulthood. The Child Welfare Council’s report cites research findings that likened the experience of sexual exploitation to the experiences of “hostages, prisoners of war, or concentration camp inmates.”
Advocates for sexually exploited youth contend that it’s a grave mistake to treat children who have experienced this intense trauma as lawbreakers. “There is a misconception in our culture that these kids are criminals,” said Kate Walker, an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. “They are kids who are too young to consent to the acts they are forced to do. Put simply, there is no such thing as a child prostitute.”
Nonetheless, police and prosecutors continue to lock up sexually exploited children and charge them with crimes — typically prostitution — even though youth advocates contend that the kids are actually victims. A 2009 report by the advocacy group Shared Hope International concluded that the misidentification of victims as criminals is a “primary barrier” to helping kids escape their exploiters.
“Those victims who are identified as minors are frequently charged with a delinquent act either for prostitution related activities or for a related offense,” stated the report, which was funded by a grant from the US Justice Department. “These children are found in detention facilities across the country, as well as in juvenile justice rehabilitation programs. Due to the unique trauma bonding that occurs between a victim and her trafficker, these children often go from a juvenile facility right back to the person that exploited them.”
In Oakland, when police pick up young girls for solicitation, it’s often during sweeps that include a joint task force involving the Oakland Police Department, the FBI, and Bay Area Women Against Rape, a group that provides support to young girls during their arrest. Law enforcement officials then process the girls through Alameda County Girls Court, a special tribunal of the delinquency court founded in 2011 for girls who have been sexually exploited.
Prosecutor Madden said that Alameda County has worked diligently to create something different for these at-risk youth. “With Girls Court we see them more frequently and we take more time with each case,” she said. “All the service providers meet weekly to support the girls. When the girls come into court, advocates are there for them.”
But many argue that the system is still stacked against underage girls. “If you cannot consent to sex then how can you be held criminally responsible for prostitution?” said Assistant Public Defender Aundrea Brown, who defends girls charged with crimes in the Girls Court.
In Alameda County, police typically arrest sexually exploited children for prostitution, but most of the kids end up being charged with lesser crimes, such as disturbing the peace or giving a police officer false information. Yet even without the prostitution charge, many girls are locked up in juvenile detention.
Once they’re arrested and in detention at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center, exploited youth remain there for days or even months. The experience of being in detention is often re-traumatizing given that many of these children have already experienced severe trauma, said Adela Rodarte, the service coordinator at WestCoast Children’s Clinic (WCC).
During their time in juvenile detention, sexually exploited minors are housed with other youth who have committed violent and nonviolent offences. In some cases, exploited youth are sent to residential treatment facilities, some in California and others out of state.
Once released from detention or from residential treatment, sexually exploited kids are typically back on the streets within days. “It’s what they are used to,” Rodarte explained. “Most of them are scared of what will happen to them if they don’t get back to their pimp. They’re more scared of their pimp than law enforcement.”
WCC Executive Director Katz said the relationship between sexually exploited youth and their exploiters can be difficult to break. “It’s complicated, because the exploiter is often the person that has shown up and been there for them when no one else has,” Katz said. “They also often have nowhere else to go. Adults in their lives previously have let them down.”
The bonding between an exploiter and child can often resemble Stockholm Syndrome or trauma-bonding, a psychological phenomenon in which victims express empathy and sympathy toward their captors. In fact, many sexually exploited youth do not think of themselves as victims; rather, they describe their relationship with their exploiters as being romantic. WCC conducted one of the rare studies on this issue, collecting data from survivors in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, and found that fewer than half of sexually exploited kids recognized their pimp or exploiter as not operating in their best interest.
Madden, who helped form Girls Court in 2011, said Oakland’s huge problem with child sexual exploitation stems from how lucrative the sex trade can be. “It’s an enormous money maker for the pimps,” she said.
This assertion is supported by a recent study of the underground commercial sex economy commissioned by the US Justice Department. The study estimated that the total sex trade in San Diego was worth $97 million last year.
Street gangs, in fact, have switched from selling drugs and guns to selling underage children for sex, Madden said. “You have a pound of cocaine or four guns and then you sell it and that’s it — it’s done. But a girl’s body can be used over and over again,” she said. “These girls are having sex all night and all day. They are being used 24-7.”
Getting exploiters off the streets is a high priority for Alameda County DA’s Office, Madden said. But gathering enough evidence for a long prison sentence can sometimes require the testimony of sexually exploited kids, who are often reluctant to face their abusers in court.
Some law enforcement officers contend that incarceration can provide a rare window of access to exploited children, who are notoriously difficult to separate from their exploiters. That window can be used to encourage the youth to testify on the witness stand, which may result in longer prison sentences for exploiters. But it’s often traumatizing for kids.
Ortiz Walker Pettigrew remembers being encouraged to testify, but she felt it was impossible for her to do so. “They wanted me to help put him away but there was no way I could,” she recalled. (She declined to name her exploiter and did not participate in his prosecution.) “I ran away. I was getting calls all the time. But it wasn’t safe for me. I hid instead.” She said that in order to escape the situation, she cut herself off from everyone, including the social service providers who wanted to help her.
“While longer prison sentences for exploiters is certainly one goal, I am much more concerned with what testifying does to these young children,” said child advocate and attorney Walker. “Although some children find it cathartic to testify, a majority are traumatized. Many testify wearing their juvenile hall sweats, and are put on the witness stand to face the exploiter, his family, and his fellow gang members. The presence in the courtroom instills fear in these children and they often don’t feel comfortable sharing their stories.”
Madden and other members of the Alameda District Attorney’s Office contend that incarcerating exploited youth is for the child’s protection — and not to ensure testimony against pimps. Deputy District Attorney Casey Bates said that his office takes a victim-centric approach when prosecuting human trafficking cases, and uses other forms of evidence when it is available.
“It’s more challenging to prosecute without victim’s testimony,” Bates said. “But we have achieved good results without testimony of the victim.” Bates estimated that half of his trafficking cases include testimony from the victims.
Regardless of whether a sexually exploited youth testifies or not, there’s still the problem of where they will go once they’re released from incarceration. “A lot of them don’t have a safe place to return to,” said Assistant Public Defender Brown, noting that there’s a shortage of appropriate housing for sexually exploited youth. “It is not easy to simply say let them go. We know they shouldn’t be charged and they shouldn’t be here. But where are they going to go?”
Nola Brantley, the former director of MISSSEY, an organization that provides services to trafficked youth, contends that juvenile detention is currently the only viable option for sexually exploited youth. “Their situations on the outside is so bad that sometimes detention is much better than what they have at home,” she said. “Their home situation is so risky and so dangerous and their needs are not being met. Juvenile hall is not the place for them to be but right now we have nowhere else.”
But some advocates for sexually exploited youth argue that when kids are picked up off the street they should be sent immediately to a child welfare assessment center to receive services. Many child welfare agencies throughout the state and nation use assessment centers for children to provide short-term placement for kids before putting them in permanent foster care housing.
In Alameda County, the assessment center is staffed with service providers who have been trained to address the complex needs of children who have been sexually exploited. Madden, however, worries that the assessment center is not safe enough, because it’s not a locked facility and children can walk right out. “Pimps can wait outside the door for them,” she said. “If it were a safe alternative, I would be okay with that. But there isn’t a safer placement than detention in the current system.”
But Ortiz Walker Pettigrew said she viewed the assessment center as a welcome change. Unlike juvenile detention, the assessment center’s staffers treated her as a victim who needed an intervention. “If it wasn’t for a few key people in my life believing that I wasn’t a lost cause, advocating for me, and meeting me where I was at I wouldn’t be here today,” she said.
Those advocates helped Ortiz Walker Pettigrew leave her exploiter and the streets of Oakland. She is currently a college student in Washington, DC and has become an advocate for sexually exploited minors. In April she was recognized as one of Time magazine’s 100 most inspirational people for 2014.
The national recognition that Ortiz Walker Pettigrew has received signals a growing awareness about the plight of sexually exploited youth. Nationally, some states are beginning to respond to the needs of sexually exploited minors. In New York, which was the first state to implement a “Safe Harbor” law in 2008, sexually exploited kids are treated as victims of trafficking and connected with services rather than sent to lockup. The State of Washington passed a similar law soon after. The results in both states, however, have been mixed. Youth advocates say the programs have been underfunded and have failed to adequately address the needs of youth victims.
Nationwide, police in most states still arrest and incarcerate sexually exploited youth.
Over the past year, California lawmakers have begun to advocate for new protocols in the state. “Trafficked children need to be recognized as victims and must have access to services through a system designed to protect and serve them,” Assemblymember Chesbro of Eureka said during a recent address from the state Assembly Democratic Caucus. “They should not be abandoned into a system designed for children who have committed crimes. Clearly, one piece of legislation cannot solve the entire problem. But just as clearly, we cannot turn away from this issue.”
Earlier this year, Chesbro authored legislation — Assembly Bill 2035 — that sought to expand child welfare services to sexually exploited children. AB 2035 ultimately failed to move forward in the legislature, but lawmakers included aspects of it into SB 855, a so-called budget trailer bill that included funding for the newly created Commercially Sexually Exploited Children Program, along with various other state programs.
Youth advocates view SB 855 as a win. But it’s just a beginning: The state’s child welfare system will now have some funding to develop programs and improve training for foster care providers, but there’s still the problem of exploiters knowing where and how to target youth in foster care.
Langs of WCC said one of the long-term goals for the state should be decriminalization, so that sexually exploited children won’t be arrested for prostitution. The more immediate concern, she said, is finding child victims a safe place to stay. “These children’s needs are highly individual — we need a lot of options: safe houses, specialized foster care, residential treatment, and transitional housing,” she said. “Until we develop these resources, youth will continue to be placed in juvenile hall, or sent to placements that are not equipped to meet their needs and keep them safe.”
For Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, finally receiving care from people who understood her needs made a tremendous difference. In a recent blogpost for the anti-trafficking website Don’t Sell Bodies, she wrote about how she felt trapped as a sexually exploited child and what it felt like to finally escape. “Most people look at Independence Day and are excited about the fireworks, BBQs, and parades,” she wrote. “Yet some don’t even realize why we initially have the holiday: Freedom. Most of you know you’re free but have never lived in a position to understand what exactly that means. I encourage you in your own life to think about the freedom you have, and how you can help free the enslaved children in our country.”
Correction: The original version of this story misstated Stacey Katz’s affiliation. She is the executive director of the WestCoast Children’s Clinic — not of the Child Welfare Council.