Young Women Being Sold for Sex are Victims, Not Criminals

Cara Santa Maria: It’s 8 p.m. in Compton. I'm riding with a Sheriff's Lieutenant and undercover detective who are part of a new Human Trafficking task force. It's not immediately apparent but along this busy road and others like it, countless young girls are sold for sex.

Undercover detective: You know what, human trafficking, it's always been around. But it has been under different names: prostitution, you know, vice. And I think what's really come to reality with everything from say child abuse to domestic violence to now human trafficking, is the concentration on dealing with the victims not just with the problem.

Cara Santa Maria: This is one of those victims. She’s agreed to talk to me on the condition that I conceal her identity. So I'm calling her Lucy. Lucy was first sold for sex at the age of fifteen.

Lucy: A girl that I had been staying with, she introduced me to a guy and his wife. And before they, uh, before they sent me to work, they had their fun with me.

Cara Santa Maria: Lucy grew up without a mother or a father. But she did have some contact with her biological family. Lucy told me that at an early age, she was sexually abused by her uncle and her grandfather. And was he supposed to be the trustworthy one?

Lucy: I thought he was. The guy was, the guy was my grandpa. Every little girl looks at her grandpa whether he is wrong or right.

Cara Santa Maria: How old were you?

Lucy:  From my grandfather from 3 to 9. From my uncle 9 to 15.

Cara Santa Maria: At age 26, Lucy is still “in the life.” She’s survived multiple rapes, homelessness, a miscarriage, and drug addiction.

Lucy:  I always kind of was looking for a family. So however screwed up it was, I didn't care, as long as I had what I believed was a family.

Undercover detective: These kids believe that these pimps are the closest thing to a father figure that they have and so they are doing it out of love. Misguided love but still love.

Cara Santa Maria: The undercover detective told me Lucy’s story is not unique.

Undercover detective: I had this one girl, she’d been prostituting since she was 13 years of age. And she was molested by her stepfather. Her mom didn't believe her, which, that's really common. And the pimp used that. She ran away, pimp got her, first thing he did was get her high. He told her how pretty she was, had sexual relationships with her. What do you think this girl’s going to do? Man, this is, someone finds me, you know, desirable. They love me. This girl was hooked, and she ended up working as a commercial sex worker for this guy for five years. And she’s still in the life.

Cara Santa Maria: Stephany Powell runs a non-profit organization called "Journey Out.” They work to help young women like Lucy.

Stephany Powell: If you have a girl that is still with your pimp that started at 13 and now she is 23 he didn't let her go at 18. So it doesn’t stop. The bottom line is that this victimization does not have an expiration date.

Cara Santa Maria: Law enforcement is beginning to get the message. Instead of viewing these young women as prostitutes and criminals, they now understand them to be victims -- coerced, exploited, and trafficked. In essence, owned by their pimps. It’s the very definition of slavery.

Undercover detective: Someone is being held, for the most part, either against their will physically or emotionally or by duress. Threats against their family, threats against themselves. It happens all the time. So yes, it is straight out slavery. I wouldn't even call it modern day slavery. It’s slavery.

Stephany Powell: People have a tendency, when they think of slavery, they think of people being in chains. And not having any part of freedom whatsoever. But there’s another part of slavery and that part of slavery is psychological. Emotional bondage is stronger than being shackled, because you can never get away from it. Your bondage is always there.

Cara Santa Maria: Lucy says she’s tired of living this way, but with a criminal record, it’s difficult to find legitimate work. When people do look at you like you’re a criminal, what do they look at you as a criminal for?

Lucy: Prostitution. Most of the time I’m dressed provocative.

Cara Santa Maria:  Compton Juvenile Court Judge, Catherine Pratt says she the word prostitute implies choice.

Judge Catherine Pratt: These kids do not have a choice. They don't have other skills. They don't have the means to get other jobs to be exposed to other professions and it is not a choice.

Cara Santa Maria: Once a girl is trapped in the sex trade, she may unwittingly become a criminal accomplice.

Judge Catherine Pratt: The line between someone who’s a victim and someone who’s an exploiter can often be very blurry. The reality is sometimes girls are encouraged to bring other girls in and it's frankly a survival technique for them. They're told by their exploiters if you bring in another girl then you don't have to be on the street. Or some other incentive such as that. And that's a very compelling incentive when you've been beaten, you've been working seven days a week for the last five months. And so sometimes they are motivated to bring other kids, other young people into the life.

Cara Santa Maria: The economics of human trafficking make things even worse for the victims, whose exploiters are often connected to gangs.  They can make more money trafficking girls than selling guns or drugs.

Judge Catherine Pratt: And when you think about it, it makes sense. Because if you sell a gram of cocaine, you can only sell it one time. Girls you can sell 10, 12, 15 times a night and there is an endless supply.

Cara Santa Maria: The new approach by the LA Regional Human Trafficking Task Force is beginning to pay off. Since November, they’ve helped 60 victims get off the street and arrested 14 suspected traffickers.

Undercover detective: I try to treat these victims as human beings, get them to the right direction that can help them. But my main goal is to get the pimp off the street. And if I can take him off the street, have I helped her? Yes. Is she ever going to be exactly how she was before she did it? No. But more importantly, I'm going to stop this guy from turning another girl into a victim.

Cara Santa Maria:  Leaving “the life” is not easy. It’s an uphill battle.

Lucy: Unfortunately I don't have a job, so that’s, it’s kind of hard ‘cause I have things that I want and I don't have a nine to five so if I want to get them I have to do what I got to do.

Cara Santa Maria: But that hasn’t stopped Lucy from imagining a better future for herself. What do you want your future to be like in a perfect world? What do you really, really want deep down inside you?

Lucy: Umm, to go to school, to find something that I enjoy doing. I'm a caring person. I like making people feel better, so maybe counseling or something? Maybe culinary, making people's belly’s happy, something.

Cara Santa Maria: Lucy’s path may be uncertain. But this compassionate, victim-centered approach might just be the road to a better future for her and others like her. I’m Cara Santa Maria, for SoCal Connected.

Law enforcement is beginning to take a different view of what was traditionally called “prostitution.” Instead of treating young women as criminals, the LA Regional Human Trafficking Task Force understands these women to be victims of human trafficking. To better appreciate their new approach, which involves steering young women towards services instead of jail, Reporter Cara Santa Maria rides along with a Lieutenant and undercover detective on a patrol in Compton.

She also talks to “Lucy,” who was sexually abused as a young girl and trafficked since the age of 15. “Lucy” explains how she was lured into “the life” and how difficult it is to get out. 

Santa Maria interviews Stephany Powell, executive director of Journey Out, a non-governmental organization that helps transition victims of human trafficking into mainstream society. She also speaks with Judge Catherine Pratt of the Compton Juvenile Court about the struggles these young women face. Their traffickers are often affiliated with gangs and represent the only family they have. 

Unfortunately, laws currently favor underage victims, as they are most vulnerable. But as these young women transition into adulthood, Powell and Pratt say we need a better approach to supporting them and connecting them with services they require. 

In this episode of “SoCal Connected,” real stories behind human trafficking are revealed, including changing attitudes and policies toward this modern form of slavery.

  • Stephany Powell, executive director, Journey Out 
  • Judge Catherine Pratt, Compton Superior Court 

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