Click photo to enlarge
Oakland police detain a young girl during a prostitution sting on April 4, 2008, in Oakland, Calif. The police have begun to build a referral data base so the girls can receive help and services. (Jane Tyska/The Oakland Tribune)
OAKLAND - WHEN AN 11- and 12-year-old girl went missing last month and police suspected they ended up prostituting themselves on the streets, the entire community took notice.

But what many don't realize is that those missing girls are just two of the legions of kids turning tricks in an exploding local prostitution business filling the pockets of pimps.

In the past 10 months, at least 170 kids between 11 and 17 have been referred to a local counseling agency because they'd been peddled on the streets for sex.

These exploited children have worked for pimps who quit drug dealing for the more lucrative and less risky trade of selling young girls for sex.

During the last decade, police tightened their grip on the crack-cocaine trade and imposed stiffer penalties for possession. This drove dealers to look for an easier way to make money; they turned to vulnerable kids on the street.

Oakland, with its hundreds of foster care kids and abused children who have run away from home, became prime recruiting ground. The Internet, technology and cell phones also made it easier for pimps to prey on children.

And social workers say even popular culture plays a role: The glorification of sex and pimping in music and fashion sends a message the lifestyle is OK.

Now, the children are younger than ever before and the problem is bigger than anyone imagined.

Pimps can earn more for younger, healthier and prettier girls. Girls aged 11 and 12 can earn as much as $500 a day for their pimps, police say.


Advertisement

But by the time the cops caught on to this trend, experts say hundreds of kids were being sold for sex on the streets and on the Internet.

Preying on the vulnerable

Firm numbers are hard to come by because agencies have only just started to quantify the problem. In one of the most comprehensive counts to date, the Oakland Police Department identified 293 teens younger than 18 being prostituted by at least 155 pimps over the year-and-a-half period that ended in May 2003.

Statistics show most of the young girls — and sometimes boys — who are caught in this life are fleeing physical or sexual abuse at home or have fallen between the cracks of the foster care system.

A 2007 survey of Oakland youths being assisted by the Sexually Abused and Commercially Exploited Youth Program found 88 percent of the youngsters had run away from home and 53 percent came from foster care group homes. Three-quarters of them had been raped at some time in their lives, and 48 percent had been physically abused growing up.

"Whenever you have vulnerable populations you have people who will prey on them," said Nola Brantley, coordinator of the Sexually and Commercially Exploited Youth Program, a service agency formed to deal with this problem and funded by Oakland's Measure Y, a 2004 ballot measure that funds public-safety programs.

Brantley is one of a growing number of social service workers, law enforcement officials and faith leaders who are determined to do something about Oakland's epidemic of child prostitution. On Sunday, they kicked off Sexually Exploited Minors Awareness Week.

Oakland has a reputation among pedophiles and pimps who roam here from other hot spots in Las Vegas, Sacramento and San Diego as a place to find young prostitutes, officials say.

The pimps also rotate their prostitutes along a local triangle of San Francisco, Richmond and Oakland, according to officers in Oakland Police Department's Special Victims Unit.

Big business, dangerous life

Business is booming.

According to a 2003 Alameda County report on youth prostitution, "There is increased economic incentive promoting young men to become involved in pimping."

But the children sold on the streets never see a dime of the money, and their childhood and innocence are exchanged for a hard life of rape, assault, manipulation and tangles with the law.

"When I asked him for the money, he went into his pocket and grabbed a gun and pushed it into my stomach," said Tempest Brown, 18, a former teen prostitute interviewed by the Oakland Tribune, in describing one experience with a john.

Luckily for her, police arrived on the scene and she was spared injury. Officers told her the man was a convicted rapist on parole. 

Her experience isn't atypical. The fates of these children only get worse by joining up with the pimps. They live under an iron grip in which they are dependent on their pimps for food, clothing, transportation — even a place to sleep at night. They hand over all of their money to their pimps.

"He didn't feed me until I made some money," said one 15-year-old girl now in counseling, whose name can't be published because she is a minor.

Other girls said they are forced to serve sex up to five men a night.

It's a life of peril and abuse.

Several other sexually exploited children interviewed said their pimps have threatened them with guns, knives and beatings. In fact, 70 percent of prostituted children in the 2007 survey said they had been assaulted while working the streets.

But social workers also say many of the young girls turn to the trade in a misplaced desire for affection. Many of the young girls call their pimps their boyfriends or their daddy and look to them for the love and attention not found in their troubled homes. Typically they are brainwashed, coerced and manipulated into making money for their pimps, said Gary Thompson, director of the Interagency Children's Policy Council, a county agency.

An 'epidemic'

The cases last month of the 11- and 12-year-old Oakland girls who ran away together — and ended up involved with men who planned to turn them into street prostitutes — were common, police said.

Both girls were later found and the wannabe pimps were arrested. In one case stemming from the girls' ordeal, a suspect is charged with sodomy with a minor under the age of 14 by someone more than 10 years older. In the other case, the suspect is charged with pimping, pandering and forced oral copulation.

Police refer these arrests to Sharmin Eashraghi Bock, Alameda County's assistant district attorney for human exploitation and trafficking. Bock says her caseload is huge.

"We have an epidemic going on here," Bock said.

Bock couldn't provide exact numbers, but said she now parcels out some cases to other attorneys in the district attorney's office. A decade ago, she said, her unit didn't even exist.

With sexual exploitation of children so widespread, city, county and law enforcement officials are wondering how it festered for years almost unnoticed. In just one week in July, police from five Bay Area cities, including Oakland, netted 131 arrests in a Bay Area-wide prostitution sting.

In Alameda County, law enforcement and social service agencies have formed a network to attack the problem with a common vision: to arrest and jail the pimps while rescuing the kids and providing them social services. The Sexually Exploited Minors Network jointly works the cases.

"These children are victims," said Bock, whose office is a member of the network.

The agencies in the network approach young prostitutes as victims, rather than criminals. When an arrest is made in Oakland or Alameda County, a social worker advocate is on the scene to deliver counseling to the youngster while the District Attorney's office consults with the police on which charges to bring against the pimp, she said.

"It takes a village to prosecute a trafficker," Bock said. "You can't do this kind of case alone."

and support

Treating children involved with prostitution as victims is a dramatic change from the days when courts and police charged them as criminals.

Among other services, the Sexually Exploited Minors Network includes counseling, education and outreach for youngsters caught in the trade, funded by a three-year $225,000 allocation from the city's Measure Y fund. The money finances, among other things, the "safe place alternative" at the Family Justice Center in downtown Oakland where youths can escape the streets for a few hours and get support.

The network is pushing for more funding to expand services.

Recently, the SEM network proposed legislation to decriminalize sexually exploited youths and beef up prosecution of pimps to the fullest extent of the law. Assembly Bill 499, introduced by Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Oakland, passed the Assembly with bipartisan support. A Senate version of the bill is scheduled for a hearing April 29.

Network members believe passage of this law could help reverse the devastating trend of youths being prostituted.

In addition, the city and county have put aside money in a capital fund campaign to build Alameda County's first "safe house."

They envision a house in a rural setting where young girls can get away from their pimps and receive long-term medical and mental health services, K-12 education and intensive case management. The safe house is modeled after similar ones in Los Angeles and British Columbia, Canada, to help exploited youth turn their lives around.

"We want to bring the child closer to who they are as a young person, knowing that they've gone through a horrific situation," said Thompson, of the county's Interagency Children's Policy Council.

The safe house would have a garden where the children can play and have fun — a yard, Thompson said, where these girls might reclaim their childhoods.

SEM network members want to give childhood back to Oakland's hundreds of sexually exploited minors and bring normalcy to the city's streets.

"Teen and child prostitution is a dirty secret," said Jean Quan, an Oakland city councilwoman.

The secret is now out.

ABOUT THE SERIES

  • TODAY: Ever-younger girls are prostituted in Oakland's growing "epidemic."

  • TUESDAY: A former prostitute, now 15, tells her story.

  • WEDNESDAY: Police, DA seek new ways to combat the problem.

  • THURSDAY: Pimps control the commodity — and the pocket money.

  • FRIDAY: Exploring the issue at a town hall meeting.

  • SATURDAY: Helping hands offered with faith and compassion.