Posted by: macjohns | December 7, 2010

The Case for a Regional Perspective: Sexually Exploited Minors (SEMs) in the Bay Area

Sometimes a regional scale is the best scale at which to solve the problems that cities face. One example of how a regional approach can help cities deal with crime, in particular, is the example of how the City of Oakland is working to combat the sexual exploitation of minors.

In Oakland on any given day, at any given time, one can find a number of underage girls selling sex along certain commercial corridors. Their customers come from far and wide to pay for sex with these girls. Often the girls have a history of molestation and other forms of abuse in the home. Many of the minors are also wards of the state who have “fallen through the cracks” for one reason or another. Pimps pick these girls out by driving around local middle and high schools, finding them on the streets, or finding them online. From there, girls are often either abducted or manipulated and subsequently coerced into prostitution. Drug addiction and involvement in the criminal justice system become reality for many of these girls.

Oakland, unlike many cities, has developed resources and support for these girls and has become a national leader in efforts to prevent this form of sexual exploitation. Specifically, funds from Oakland’s 2004 “Violence Prevention and Public Safety Act” (also called “Measure Y” and coauthored by Jean Quan) have been used since 2006 to pay for programs that target these girls. With this funding, Oakland has partnered with Alameda County’s Interagency Children’s Policy Council and other Alameda County-specific organizations. They work with police and others to develop a comprehensive strategy to not only remove these girls from the streets, but also to help them find their way out of a cycle of abuse and exploitation. As a member of the City Council, Jean Quan helped to spearhead many of these efforts and to assist local agencies and the police department in this work. As a former Policy Analyst in her council office, it was my job to attend the monthly SEM Network meetings and act as a liaison between her office and the stakeholders that made up the network. In this collaboration, we also worked with the office of Assemblymember Sandre Swanson around AB 499 (which was the first of its kind legislation to view these “prostitutes” as victims in the criminal justice system and to mandate training for law enforcement and also established a pilot diversion program for these youth).

Through the systematic efforts of these stakeholders, augmented by AB 499,  many things have been accomplished. They have: opened and funded a “Safe Place Alternative” where girls can come and receive drop-in counseling and resources; created a diversion program; trained police officers on how to deal with SEMs; trained residents in Jean Quan’s council district on the issues that SEMs face and how to report exploitation; and created a working group that shares resources, information, and practices used to assist SEMs. With all of this work, about a third of the girls are able to leave the lifestyle. There still remain a myriad of issues for why these minors remain with pimps even after incarceration and physical abuse. One explanation, of course, would be Stockholm Syndrome whereby hostages develop positive feelings towards their captors that appear irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims.

The work, however, is incomplete. At the county-level, systems are working in such a way that the nation is taking note. Police departments across the country look to the county and to the Oakland Police Department in particular as models to replicate. At the regional scale, this work is a drop in the bucket. Pimps who become aware of the coordinated efforts of the county or begin to notice increased police stings can simply pack up and take their girls to other Bay Area hotspots; namely San Francisco and Richmond. These areas represent the two counties adjacent to Alameda County, San Francisco and Contra Costa counties. Without work in the other Bay Area cities aforementioned, pimps are given a chance to “wait out” the enforcement and other campaigns waged by Alameda County and Oakland in particular. When efforts seem to die down, they can come back into Oakland and continue their operations as usual. It works like a “whack-a-mole” game where hitting the problem with a metaphorical mallot in one area causes it to appear instantly in another area.  The goal, as Alameda County continues to develop its long-term strategy is to partner with both Contra Costa and San Francisco counties in order to coordinate and streamline their efforts to make the greatest impact.

With Jean Quan’s leadership as a Councilmember on this issue, and with her continuing political career as the Mayor of Oakland, it is expected that this regional collaboration will begin. This issue is one that negatively impacts the quality of life for everyone in the Bay Area region. Whether it is affecting: the actual victims, those who live and work in the neighborhoods in which they work, those who are affected by the guns and drugs that this exploitation buys, and those who are affected by the ever-encroaching gangs that use these girls as a form of capital. Further, it is expected that the work being done in Alameda County will contribute to the creation of best practices that can help other regions that struggle with this issue including: Las Vegas, New York, Miami and the like.

For a personal story of one girl who was rescued from the streets, visit:  http://measurey.org/index.php?page=samantha-story

For information on a program that works with SEMs in Oakland,visit:   http://www.misssey.org/

To read accounts of actual teen girls trapped in this lifestyle from YouthRadio reporters on the NPR News website, visit: http://www.npr.org/2010/12/06/131757019/youth-radio-trafficked-teen-girls-describe-life-in-the-game

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