Last week, I visited the spot where a young girl was brutally murdered, set on fire and burned to death in the middle of the street in Los Angeles. I have searched to find answers about her plight, but to no avail; this story barely made local news. She was just 17 years old.
In contrast, the story of the attack on Malala Yousafzai for advocating girls' education in Pakistan has been the subject of headlines across the world. And rightly so. Public indignation at the violence and brutality confronting girls thousands of miles away is well placed. Yet this concern stands in sharp contrast to the public indifference to the plight of adolescent girls and young women struggling with violence here at home.
I have worked with the foster care population in Los Angeles for over two years and have had an up-close opportunity to see how and why girls and young women in Los Angeles are brutalized, sexually trafficked and even killed. In addition to trauma suffered by children at the hands of their own families, girls in foster care are commonly further victimized by sex trafficking predators and pimps.
Every single day, girls in Los Angeles are kidnapped and coerced by traffickers and pimps into a life of sexual slavery and violence. The average age of entry into this life is 12 years old -- the age of a child in seventh grade. There are hundreds of children affected by this crisis in LA alone. Alarmingly, yet not surprisingly, estimates consistently show over 70 percent of the children victimized through sex trafficking are foster children. Traffickers know that foster kids are an abused and vulnerable population, and that these girls are desperate for the love and attention that they did not receive from their own families. Lacking the necessary relationships and support, coupled with likely sexual and physical abuse at a young age, these girls are particularly at risk for the organized and pre-meditated tactics of traffickers.
Child sex trafficking, though largely unheard of and often misunderstood, is in fact a domestic crisis. It has become one of the most common organized crimes in the country, third only after the sale of illegal drugs and arms. Gangs, which have been entrenched in Los Angeles neighborhoods for many years, are increasingly becoming involved in child sex trafficking. Gang members have learned that, unlike drugs or weaponry, a young girl's body is a "commodity" that can be sold time after time. An added benefit for traffickers is the decreased risk: when selling girls, the primary risk falls on the child being sold, who is standing alone on the street, not on the trafficker who is safely out of sight. And while a child is not of age to consent to sex, they can be arrested and charged with the crime of prostitution due to legal loopholes. Just last week I observed a court hearing where a 12-year-old was being charged with the crime of prostitution. Likely pre-menstrual, still with a childish look in her eyes, she sat in court in an orange jumpsuit, with tears streaming down her cheeks, while the judge explained the charges.
New efforts in L.A. have attempted to address the growing problem of child sex trafficking. The L.A. County Juvenile Delinquency's STAR Court takes a collaborative team-based approached to handling these cases, and provides increased supervision to girls affected by sex trafficking. Efforts by our local Probation Department have made notable impacts in the county to provide awareness and trainings for agencies, and prevention programs for young girls. I have been working as a judicial extern with the STAR Court for a few months and have already seen unbelievable improvements in the girls' progress, as well as the overarching mentality of system providers. Yet while these efforts are a step in the right direction, the programs must be institutionalized across agencies and within our communities if we are to effectively combat this crisis.
Children who are targeted by traffickers and pimps are often referred to as "throwaway" children. The horror of this description is all the more profound because it captures so well how we as a society, through commission and omission, treat these girls. We must stop allowing girls to be thrown away in our own streets. We must support and strengthen programs that prevent young girls from ending up in a pipeline to trafficking. Then maybe we can do a better job protecting young women from becoming a footnote to our urban nightmares, set on fire and burned to death on our streets.