The counselor provides a sisterly shoulder to lean on during a time of crisis and acts as an advocate for the young victim.
"If (the girl) is beat up, she might be breaking down crying," said Nola Brantley, executive director of the Oakland-based nonprofit. "If she has been raped, she might be in shock. If she has been arrested, she is terrified."
MISSSEY stands for Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth. It is a non-profit counseling and advocacy service funded by the city of Oakland's Measure Y, the 2004 voter initiative that funds public safety programs.
The response protocol is one piece of a strategy to treat the girls as victims rather than criminals. A growing number of social workers and government and law enforcement officials are troubled by the rise in the number of young girls some of them 11 or 12 who are being sold on Oakland streets for sex.
The idea behind the response plan, worked out by the police and a group of service providers called the Sexually Exploited Minors network, is to get help to the young women as soon as possible.
MISSSEY workers provide counseling at the point of crisis and serve as advocates to help the girls get medical care, find a safe living arrangement or enter long-term counseling whatever their needs may be.
Since opening in July, MISSSEY has helped 170 girls, including 60 who were referred to the program by the Police Department. The others may have been referred from Children's Hospital, schools or juvenile hall. Some came on their own.
"And there are only three of us doing this," Brantley said.
The program needs more money and volunteers, she said. The advocacy program and the long-term counseling caseload are at peak capacity, with 35 in the advocacy case management and 30 in counseling. MISSSEY and a couple of other counseling programs split $125,000 from Measure Y, with MISSSEY receiving the bulk of that.
Brantley said program workers met about half the girls it serves at a point of crisis at an arrest scene or after having been raped or attacked.
"They are usually terrified at that moment," Brantley said. "That is usually a prime time to convince the girl to go into long-term counseling" and consider getting off the streets.
Oakland Police Officer Jim Saleda, who works in the special victims unit, said he has seen girls as young as 11 on the streets, girls who are just looking for someone to take care of them.
"We contact MISSSEY advocates 24 hours a day, to bring them to these kids," Saleda said.
MISSSEY runs the safe place alternative, or SPA, a hideaway in North Oakland where exploited girls can escape the streets for an afternoon and find support from adults and other girls in similar situations. At SPA, the girls have their own space and are encouraged to express their emotions through artwork, including poetry, drawing and painting.
It can be difficult to get the girls to trust a counselor they've never met, Brantley said.
"In their experience, adults mistreated them," Brantley said, adding that the majority of the girls on the street had been physically or sexually abused by an adult who was supposed to be taking care of them, whether a parent or a foster parent.
"It's like they were removed from home because they were abused by a stepfather only to be put in a foster care home where they are abused for the next four years," Brantley said.
A panel of experts who attended a town hall meeting Thursday on sexually exploited minors said MISSSEY and similar programs are sorely needed.
Other organizations providing counseling and assistance to sexually exploited youth in Oakland include: the Asian Health Services/Banteay Srei; the Interagency Children's Policy Council; Scotlan Youth and Family Center; CAL-PEP, the California Prevention and Education Program; and the Dream Catcher Youth Shelter.
Most of all, panelists said Thursday, the girls need someone to genuinely care about them.
As one girl wrote recently to her counselor at MISSSEY, "What I would give for you to have been my mom. Maybe I would have been more strong."
For more information about MISSSEY Inc., call 510-267-8840.