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A 12 year old girl who is in Alameda County Juvenile Hall in San Leandro, Calif., and who has prostituted herself and is a victim of sexual abuse and exploitation writes on her arm, "I wanna go home." (Alison Yin/The Oakland Tribune)
ALAMEDA COUNTY JUVENILE JUSTICE CENTER - SHE was raped when she was 11. She was even younger when her grandmother started kicking her out of the house and telling her she wished she were dead.

She never met her father. Her real mother is a drug addict living homeless in West Oakland. "I see her sometimes," the girl said.

Yearning for love and appreciation, the girl, now 12, was enticed by the attention of a pimp, a friend of a friend who started flattering her and telling her about the money they could make soliciting on the Internet.

"After that, I started doing the track with him," said the girl, using the street name for the stretch of International Boulevard where many of Oakland's young prostitutes work.

"He'd be watching me," she recalled of her pimp, an older teen. "I wanted to go home sometimes, but he'd say if I left him, he would kill me and blow my house up."

The Oakland girl, whose name cannot be published because she is a minor, was arrested earlier this year and is serving time in the juvenile justice facility in San Leandro on prostitution charges and violating probation.

Her pixie face and ready smile are those of a typical 12-year-old. But she has seen some very hard times. She said her pimp beat her, pulled the braids right out of her head andcut up her arm. "My arm was leaking real bad," she recounted in an interview last week, showing off a 4-inch scar.

She said a john once threatened her with a gun.

The girl's experiences are typical for sexually exploited youth, experts say. The majority of youngsters involved in the sex trade have been abused or neglected. Almost all the youngsters on the streets have run away from a home situation they find untenable.

"A lot of these young girls are foster care youth and kids not connected to any family system," said Brian Bob, outreach coordinator for Covenant House, a nonprofit homeless shelter for youth that drives a van around Oakland five nights a week to provide food and, if they'll accept it, shelter to homeless youngsters. The vast majority of homeless girls Covenant House finds are prostitutes, he said.

"It's like, I am 15, and I don't like where I am living so I leave and then run into someone who is in the prostitution trade," Bob said.

Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Eshraghi Bock, who prosecutes human exploitation and trafficking cases, said many of the young girls who fall into prostitution have never known a loving family, so they mistake a pimp's affection and promises of material things as love.

"If you don't know how to love or be loved, then you are going to look for love in all the wrong places," Bock said.

Many girls call their pimp "daddy" or their boyfriend, she said.

Sexually Abused and Commercially Exploited Youth, an Oakland-based counseling program, last year surveyed 100 children between the ages of 11 and 17 who had been peddled on the streets and referred for counseling.

They found that 75 percent of the children had been raped at some time in their lives, 48 percent had been physically or sexually abused, and 70 percent had been assaulted while working the streets.

Most of the respondents were runaways: Eighty-eight percent said they had run away from their family home or a foster care home.

They can come from any town, any neighborhood.

One 14-year-old from an affluent Contra Costa County town got caught up in prostitution after she ran away, because she was afraid she would get in trouble for running up a $10,000 debt on the family ATM card, her stepfather said.

She was missing for six months until law enforcement agencies and the stepfather found her by trolling through Craigslist's "erotic" listings.

"It's a world I never would have known until it came to my doorstep," the stepfather said.

The pimp was prosecuted in Alameda County and is now in jail.

Another girl being detained in juvenile hall interviewed last week said money was the reason she turned to prostitution. But once there, she sought love.

"I used to try to find love in the tricks," said the Hayward girl who turned 18 last week. She turned to prostitution at 15 after fleeing a foster care group home where she had been placed after being abused at home. Nola Brantley, coordinator of the SACEY counseling program, said the child prostitution epidemic in Oakland can be partially blamed on an overtaxed police system.

"There are cases of severe child abuse in Oakland that will go uninvestigated and not prosecuted because of lack of manpower," Brantley said. "Some of these same children who were abused and nobody intervened will go on to become sexually exploited minors."

Contact Barbara Grady at bgrady@bayareanewsgroup.com or 510-208-6427.

ABOUT THE SERIES

  • MONDAY: 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.