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Friday, August 19, 2011
So Young: Oakland Combats Underage Prostitution
Just across the Estuary, Oakland is trying to reduce the number of teenage girls who are on the street and controlled by pimps. First in a series; watch for more stories this week.
Bay City News — On a gray, drizzly afternoon last March, it was mostly empty along Oakland's "Track," a section of International Boulevard in the middle of the city that is known as a hub for prostitution.
As the sun occasionally pierced through the clouds onto the bars, restaurants and shops that line the street, a young African American girl in a T-shirt and skinny jeans stood behind a bus stop at 29th Avenue, rubbing her arms against the cold.
"There's one," Oakland Police Officer Hamann Nguyen said as he drove by in an undercover police car.
Nguyen was pointing out underage girls working as prostitutes, a long-recognized problem in Alameda County that experts agree is only getting worse.
Juvenile prostitution has reached epidemic proportions in Oakland, according to Sgt. Holly Joshi, a spokeswoman for the department who spent three years with Oakland's vice and child exploitation unit.
Nearly all the girls on the streets are controlled by pimps who claim their earnings. Many start as early as age 12 or 13.
They therefore aren't really prostitutes; they are commercially sexually exploited youth, Joshi says.
"Underage kids can't give consent to have sex, let alone sell it," Joshi said.
Federal law classifies recruiting minors for prostitution as a form of human trafficking, meaning they're understood to be victims of both civil rights violations and violent crime, such as statutory rape and other sex crimes.
Most of the girls recruited for prostitution come from single-parent homes and have been physically or sexually abused, according to service providers with Alameda County.
Ever since commercial sexual exploitation of youth was identified as a major problem in Alameda County about 10 years ago, public officials have responded with progressive policies that recognize the girls as victims; aggressive prosecution that has put pimps away for life; and regional collaborations that have become models for other cities.
But experts agree that trafficking of minors is so low-risk and so lucrative for the pimps that growth of the criminal enterprise is outpacing legal and law enforcement developments — even in Alameda County, where a decade of awareness has led to prevention, suppression and rehabilitation techniques that are considered the national gold standard.
Nature of the Game
By the time "Samantha," a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, was 10, her father was in jail and her mother was a drug addict who had exploited her daughter to fuel her own addiction, according to the Oakland nonprofit Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth, or MISSSEY.
Samantha was removed from her mother's care and placed in a string of foster homes, and by age 12 she was being sexually abused and exploited by a pimp. Three years later, she was living on her own —and continuing to be sexually exploited — when police finally arrested her and identified her as a juvenile, thus beginning her long process of recovery.
Alameda County officials identify hundreds of girls like Samantha every year who are working as prostitutes, controlled by physically and psychologically abusive pimps who take advantage of runaways, foster children and other at-risk youth.
Nearly all of the women and girls working Oakland's streets and motels are controlled by pimps, who can make hundreds of thousands of dollars each year with a five-girl "stable," or group of prostitutes under their control, according to Sgt. Joshi.
It's a far different situation than the one police encountered during the 1970s and 1980s, according to Oakland police Officer Jim Saleda, who for years has overseen the department's vice and child exploitation unit.
Pimps used to be groomed by a dad or uncle and welcomed to the profession, he explained. They called pimping the "gentlemen's game" because they stayed out of other types of crime.
"Don't get me wrong," Saleda said. "This was never a gentlemen's game. There were beatings — these pimps were always parasites."
But pimps used to consider themselves in a class above drug dealers and gangsters, he said. Gunplay was rarely involved in prostitution, and the women working the streets were adults with a distinctive look.
Now, pimps try to make their girls blend in, giving them backpacks and jeans so they will be mistaken for students instead of identified as commercially sexually exploited youth.
They target girls who have been neglected at best and abused at worst. A survey conducted by the county in 2007 found that 61 percent of the area's sexually exploited youth had been raped at least once prior to being exploited and were on average 11 years old during the first attack.
About 55 percent of the girls identified were foster care youth and 25 percent had been hospitalized at least once for a mental illness or episode, the study said.
Joshi said only a few of the girls she has worked with were in school, and most of them dropped out as they became more involved with their pimps.
This is the first in a series on underage prostitution in Oakland that will appear on Alameda Patch this week. Next: the pimps who lure and then control young girls.