LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Most people think child sex trafficking only happens overseas.
But here in Los Angeles, some kids are held captive and forced to sell sex on the streets. The average age is 16, and some are as young as 10.
CBS2’s Pat Harvey went for a ride with a member of the LAPD’s vice unit that goes undercover to help get kids off the streets.
In the past, juveniles walking the streets as sex workers may have been arrested for prostitution, but that’s no longer the case.
In a new approach, Harvey finds out what happens when police and crisis advocates work together to rescue L.A.’s youth. Once police have the kids in custody, they get help from the nonprofit group Saving Innocence.
“This is all about rescuing some minors that have been essentially abducted.” LAPD Capt. Al Pasos said.
Investigators are focused on kids who are under the control of pimps. Many are coerced into sex work and forbidden to leave, threatened and subdued by violence.
During the ride-along, LAPD Sgt. Scott Carter was looking for kids working the streets.
“How old are you?” he asked one woman.
That woman said she was 29 and was arrested for prostitution. Anyone under the age of 18 will not be arrested.
“This happened so quick; we hadn’t been in the car 15 minutes,” Harvey said.
A new law on the books in California no longer allows children to be prosecuted for prostitution. Instead, police detain them and call a hotline that alerts the rest of the task force.
For seven years, Saving Innocence has helped hundreds of young victims of human sex trafficking in Los Angeles and Orange County.
“We respond within 90 minutes of that call, 24 hours a day seven days a week to provide crisis intervention,” Kim Biddle, Founder & CEO, said. “When the kids come off the street with law enforcement, they have a much-needed soft landing.”
The nonprofit works with county agencies and provides the girls with immediate emotional support. Then Saving Innocence guides them to housing, therapy and education.
“When a child comes out of this it’s like they’re coming out of a cult meets a domestic violence situation meets torture,” Biddle said.
This month alone, the southeast vice unit detained 13 juveniles involved in sex trafficking. In 2016, they took 63 juveniles off the street.
On this night, police see two women walking along Figueroa Avenue, and one looks young.
“How old are you? What tattoo do you have?” Carter asks.
Sex traffickers often mark women and girls with tattoos.
Jessica, a former sex worker, knows this because she has a tattoo given to her by a former trafficker when she was 17.
“Basically, this is a brand to show that I belong to somebody,” she said. “We’re just something to be sold; we’re a product.”
Jessica was kidnapped and spent years trying to get out of what she calls “the life.” She says kids don’t just decide one day to have this life.
“It’s not just like I’m living this life and everything is great, and I think one day I’m going to go sleep with strangers, be raped on a regular basis, have money thrown at me and then I have to give to an abuser that claims to love me, ” Jessica said.
Back on Figueroa, police are attempting to the flip the script back in favor of the kids.
“This one, I definitely think’s a juvey, ” Carter said.
Advocates and police admit that not all girls stick around for the help.
But those who do have a story to tell.
“To overcome emotional, mental and physical bondage says a lot,” Jessica said.
Jessica eventually said no to the life and yes to help. Now she’s a mom and a survivor advocate. A mural depicting the sex-trafficking industry in downtown Los Angeles lets the world know she’s a survivor.
“I love myself; I really love myself,” Jessica said. ”I feel like my place on this Earth is to help other people like me.”
Advocates eventually take a backpack to those kids. It’s designed to comfort them with a stuffed animal, a soft blanket, comfortable clothes and even a toothbrush. It’s the ice breaker to a long process of recovery.
Back on the street, the LAPD vice unit is only halfway through their night.