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Campaign to halt child sex trafficking launched in L.A. County

May 31, 2012 |  1:17 pm

Posters in Spanish and English are being installed in thousands of Metro buses and rail cars to heighten public awareness of underage sex trafficking in Los Angeles.

When Los Angeles County Probation Department workers recently analyzed arrest data for prostitution, they found numbers that defy the notion that underage sex trafficking is a Third World problem.

In 2010, 174 prostitution cases that were referred to the department involved girls under the age of 18. Another 2,351 involved 18-to-24-year-olds, officials said.

“People just don’t realize that child sex trafficking is happening right here,” County Supervisor Don Knabe said Thursday at the launch of a campaign to heighten public awareness of the problem. “Some as young as 12 and 14 are being bought and sold on the streets of Los Angeles County.”

Posters in Spanish and English are being installed in thousands of Metro buses and rail cars and Clear Channel Outdoor is donating space on 65 digital and conventional billboards to call attention to the sexual exploitation of youngsters. Metro has also released nearly 80,000 brochures asking members of the public to call a hotline -- (888) 950-SAFE -- if they see a young person they believe is involved in the sex trade.

“They’re kids who have no attachment,” and are susceptible to the enticements of pimps who promise to care for them, said Michelle Guymon, a placement director for the probation department.

Girls as young as 11 have been picked up for prostitution in the county. She said the average age of teen prostitutes her department works with is 15, but many report that they started on the streets when they were 12.

Statistics paint a grim picture of poverty and troubled family lives. Of the 174 underage cases analyzed by probation, 84% of the girls were from poor communities in the county’s southeast. Nearly 60% of them had been in the child welfare system and 92% were African American, officials said.

Guymon said she was working with one teenager who lost both her parents to AIDS. In some cases, she said, young teens have been sent to the streets to earn money to support the drug habits of their mothers.

“We’re trying to look at them more as victims than as criminals” and get the girls in touch with  support services, Guymon added.

But unless harsher penalties for pimping are enacted, she said “things will never change for the girls.”

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-- Bettina Boxall

Image: Posters in Spanish and English are being installed in thousands of Metro buses and rail cars to heighten public awareness of underage sex trafficking in Los Angeles. Credit: Metro

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