I saw the billboard on a drive through downtown Oakland, California, as my friend headed towards the 580 freeway. In the billboard’s foreground was the foot of a bed covered by a brownish yellow blanket. Two teddy bears arranged across yellow pillows lay further back on the bed. Splashed across the foot of the bed in light yellow letters were the words: “Buying a teen for sex is child abuse. Turning a blind eye is neglect.” Below was a plea to “help free a child” and a web address.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. Back home in my part of upstate New York, the billboards looming over the highways feature advertisements for a local photographer who specializes in prom pictures and a Greek restaurant that seems to have a commercial running on local TV every ten minutes.
Curious, I took the web address from the billboard down in my phone: ProtectOaklandKids.org.
A line from the ProtectOaklandKids.org homepage reads: “The commercial sexual exploitation of minors is child abuse, and a form of modern-day slavery.” In the beginning of my research into child sex trafficking in Oakland, it seemed important for me to make a distinction between young people who are forced into having sex for money, perhaps abducted off the street, slaves, and those who willingly took up the lifestyle.
I raised some of my concerns during a phone conversation with Sayuri Takagawa, a training coordinator with MISSSEY, an anti-sexual exploitation organization based in Oakland. When I asked Takagawa how I should distinguish so-called child prostitution from commercial sex trafficking, it sounded like she was doing her best not to lose patience with me. “There is no such thing as a child or teenage prostitute,” she bristled as I wished I could take the question back. She reminded me that the age of consent in California is eighteen, so even someone who is “seventeen years and three hundred sixty four days” cannot consent to sex. Takagawa pointed out that although trafficking includes some element of “force, fraud, or coercion,” children and teens who have sex to earn money so that they can have their basic needs met are also victims of exploitation.
Takagawa also addressed my image of child sex traffickers coming out of nowhere to grab victims off the street. I would learn that while this so-called “guerilla pimping” does sometimes happen, something called “romeo pimping” is far more common. In romeo pimping, a pimp becomes romantically involved with a potential victim in order to lure them into “the life.” Pimps target attention starved, needy young people—the type, many times, who come from troubled families and impoverished neighborhoods.
After speaking with Takagawa, I understood it like this—a young woman grows up without much attention from anyone. Maybe her family is doing everything they can just to survive, or perhaps she has bounced from foster home to foster home. Then, one day, a man approaches her.
The man compliments the young woman, tells her how beautiful she is. She is grateful for the attention, because in her chaotic world she feels starved for affection. She gets to know the guy, brings him into her life. They spend a lot of time together and she tells him her secrets, the things no one else would care to hear. The guy listens and seems to care about what she has to say. As their relationship progresses, he starts talking about something the girl could do to help both of them. He tells her that if she could just sell her body, they would have money to get an apartment together. When she hesitates, the guy threatens her, tells her what he could do to her (and her family) if she doesn’t agree.
Because she is scared and because she can’t imagine her life without him, the girl eventually relents. She might get beat up by her “lover” or by the men who buy her, but she sees no way out of her new lifestyle. She is terrified of leaving the man she thought loved her and terrified of being arrested.
In another effort to learn from someone who works with child sex trafficking victims, I reached out to Jennifer Madden. Madden is an assistant district attorney in Alameda County who heads the juvenile division of H.E.A.T watch, the anti-child sex trafficking project responsible for the billboard I saw in downtown Oakland. Madden agreed to meet with me at her office at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center.
The Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center is set in the hills of suburban San Leandro. If you miss the small turn off that brings you downhill before taking you back up into a parking lot and instead drive further into the hills, you can see a view that stretches into downtown Oakland with a hazy San Francisco in the distance. Fences topped with barbed wire section off the facility from the rest of the area.
Once inside the Juvenile Justice Center, I immediately noticed a long line of teenagers standing with who I assumed were their parents. A quick glance at a directory told me that they were waiting for their turn in one of several court rooms. Mounted on the wall to my left was a giant decoration of a wooden window divided into six frames. In each frame was a scene of what I guess could be called progress— a girl in a cap and gown, smiling ecstatically into the distance; two disembodied hands grasping a ball of dirt out of which a small green plant grows; a group of children gathered around an opened book.
On top of a small bookshelf against the back wall in Jennifer Madden’s office are awards from the California Association of Black Lawyers and the University of California. Later, I learned that Madden grew up poor in Clovis, near Fresno, California. She has lived in the Bay Area since coming to Berkeley in the late eighties for undergrad and then law school.
I started with what I thought was a fairly straightforward question: I asked Madden if she could give me a profile of the victims she works with. What kind of children or teens are usually at risk of being trafficked?
“So, I think kind of the general answer is that any young person could be at risk,” she told me. “But there are definitely characteristics that we see here in Alameda County.” She started telling me about Safety Net, which she described as a weekly meeting held in the library in the district attorney’s office. At first, I was confused—I wasn’t sure what a weekly meeting has to do with statistics about the demographics of trafficking victims. This happened several times during our conversation—Madden would seem to go on a tangent and I would struggle to keep up, realizing later how crucial the extra information was.
As I would learn, Safety Net is a project of H.E.A.T watch. It’s a collaboration between Madden; a public defender who is a “major player” and handles the majority of the cases as opposed to private counsel; representatives from social services agencies; local non-profits that work with commercially sexually exploited girls; an in-house mental health and sometimes general health provider; and Bay Area Legal Aid. From January 2011 to the present, Safety Net has reviewed the cases of almost four hundred girls and “three or four boys” who are victims of or are considered to be at a high risk for commercial sex exploitation.
Madden estimated that 40-60% of the kids in the Safety Net database: “come from the foster care system or have experience with foster care.” Perhaps 90% have had a history of some type of trauma: “whether that’s sexual trauma or emotional abuse or physical trauma.” 60-70% identify as African American. The average age of the girls Madden sees is fifteen or sixteen, although she also told me, “the youngest I’ve really dealt with here was 12, and she was in a group home and she started exploiting other kids in the group home.” She added that although the youngest victim of commercial sex exploitation she’s heard about is nine or ten, it is entirely possible that a victim could be even younger, “because sometimes the families are involved in the actual trafficking.”
Many of the victims Madden works with come from urban neighborhoods, but not always. “I was at home Wednesday night and got a call from someone who runs a program in East Palo Alto,” she said. “There was a very smart young lady on her way to a UC school who started being trafficked by her boyfriend. And she goes to a school that’s in the suburbs, and this had been the second incident in a month.”
Since Safety Net is supposed to partly function as a preventative program, the girls discussed during its meetings are not just the ones brought in to the detention center for prostitution. “Sometimes we’ll have a girl who is brought in for battery or shoplifting or something else, but she may say something or there is something in her history that lets us know that she has this history or she’s at risk and then we’ll talk about her in Safety Net,” Madden said. “Because the point is, I don’t want to just deal with these girls once they’ve already been exploited.”
The cooperation between the district attorney’s office and various outside agencies has proven essential even outside of Safety Net. Madden told me about getting a call regarding a fifteen-year-old girl from Alameda County who was sitting in detention in Las Vegas after being found with a pimp in a seedy motel. According to Madden, authorities in Alameda County hesitated to pay for the girl’s return to the Bay Area because she was only on probation for a misdemeanor.
Madden contacted the organization Bay Area Women Against Rape (she calls them the “first point of contact” for girls brought into detention), who were able to get the money for the girl to return to her mother’s house.
Although I was impressed by Madden’s passion and the way H.E.A.T Watch’s programs are able to connect girls with social services, something was still bothering me. When girls are “brought in” to the juvenile justice center, it is usually because they are under arrest. If the girls really are victims—as Madden told me, “I don’t like to use the term prostitute, I know that’s what the penal code says, but I call them commercially sexually exploited children,”— why must they be arrested in the first place?
As Madden admitted: “If you talk to advocates, there’s kind of divergent viewpoints. Some people feel like they should not be brought in at all. The problem is that if you just cite them and release them, they are going back out to the pimp. I’m not comfortable with that. I personally feel, and some advocates would agree, that [there should be] a brief period of detention to try and figure out what’s going on with this kid, what services does this kid need.”
Madden said that when a young person who has been caught prostituting is brought to detention, a determination is made as to whether there is a safe place for the child to return. “A lot of times there isn’t, so we have to put the case over,” Madden said. “If everyone feels like there is a safe place for this kid to go, then we can make that happen. Sometimes the girls stay in [detention] for a longer period of time, it kind of just depends. Sometimes the girls are placed. And that kind of depends on how deep the situation is.”
According to Madden, girls caught having sex for money in nearby Santa Clara County aren’t arrested or detained This has caused some Alameda County pimps to just move the girls in their stables to the Santa Clara area.
When Madden told me about what some of the trafficked girls she’s worked with have been through, it made me think that “a brief period of detention” is far from the most traumatic thing they will experience as long as they stay in “the life.” Madden talked about a sixteen-year-old who came to court with “broken bones on her face and both eyes swollen shut” after jumping out of a second story window to escape her pimp’s torture; a nineteen-year-old who, on the eve of what she thought was her departure from ‘the life,’ was shot in the head by her pimp. Then there was the eighteen-year-old who was murdered right before she was scheduled to testify against her pimp. Her body was later found on the side of the 13 freeway. It isn’t known for sure if she was killed by her pimp or by someone who had purchased her.
Yet, even if someone is determined to leave “the life” behind, it’s not as if he or she can hand in a letter of resignation and be done with it. “It’s like ‘ok, this person knows where my mom lives,’” Madden said, echoing a common concern of those who have been trafficked. “‘I’ve been here in the community, I can’t just go somewhere else. What am I supposed to do?‘ It’s a lot. It’s not as simple as ‘let me make this decision to leave.’”
Madden stressed the ”years and years” and support it takes to turn around a life that has been derailed by trafficking. Many advocates are trafficking survivors who have gone on to lead productive lives. However, challenges remain. Madden told me about an anti-child sex trafficking advocate she knows who is always looking over her shoulder— her former pimp is out of jail and back in Oakland. The woman is worried that he could approach her as she walks down the street with her kids.
A pimp’s motivation for doing everything he can to hold onto a girl he’s lured into “the life” is simple—sex trafficking is a lucrative business. According to Madden, some of the same criminals who ran guns and drugs fifteen years ago have moved on to human trafficking. “If you think about it, and I’m going to be crude for a moment, a woman’s body is something you can use over and over again for decades. You have a gun, you sell it, it’s gone. You have a package of drugs—it’s gone. I’ve gone to some trainings where they said if a man has four or five girls in his stable, he can make almost $800,000 tax free a year. That’s a lot of money.”
Gangs, interested in the money to be made from trafficked girls, sometimes collaborate with each other, switching off the girls from jurisdiction to jurisdiction in an attempt to maximize profits. Madden told me about the tactics used by the gangs to keep the girls in line: “they do not have a problem putting guns in women’s vaginas, threatening them, beating them, chaining them, treating them as animals, torturing them.”
I asked Madden about what happens to the girls after they are released from detention. As she admitted, “part of the problem is that they are coming back to the same community, to the same home.” Some of the girls have found success by being “placed,” sometimes in faraway treatment centers.
Madden told me about a treatment center in Arizona that is “very remote and the pimps cannot get to them [there].” To access the treatment center, you have to drive into a national forest and up a winding hill.
One of the girls placed at this remote treatment center had never seen a horse before arriving—yet she became the “rodeo queen” of the equestrian program. After leaving the treatment center, the girl was able to move into a nearby group home. Madden says that if the girls want to stay in the Phoenix area longer term, the program helps them find employment or enroll in school.
“Sometimes I want these girls to just not come back,” Madden said, her voice turning soft. “I know that their families are here, but there’s so many issues here. I just want them to get a fresh start somewhere else. Because for some reason Oakland just has a..I don’t know if I want to say it’s the culture of it. There’s a certain acceptance of this whole pimp thing going on, I don’t really know what the genesis of it is. But it’s just so pervasive, it just happens so much.”
Andrea Babinec is a San Francisco Bay Area native and graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California’s MFA in creative writing program.
Featured Image Credit: By Basil D Soufi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia Commons