WestCoast Children’s Clinic (WCC) is now three years into C-Change: Transforming the Lives of Sexually Exploited Minors, a program to help change the life trajectory of sexually exploited youth,” Executive Director Stacey Katz, announced. “Unfortunately, demand for our services has dramatically increased in the last three years. We’ve gone from serving 16 youth per year to over 100. “
Oakland’s WCC is a nonprofit children’s psychology clinic that has been serving child victims of trauma for over 25 years. It is community-based clinic for the Bay Area, providing evaluation and therapy to children and families, developing foster youth, training psychologists, and conducting research to improve policy and practice.
WCC’s most recent research project, entitled “Research to Action: Sexually Exploited Minors (SEM) Needs and Strengths,” was released in July. The two-year collaborative research project is a detailed assessment of the needs and strengths of sex trafficked minors based on 113 girls and young women between 10 and 24 years old who have been receiving services in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
The average age of the study participants was 16 years and 11 month old, and 80% of them were WCC clients. The study describes the characteristics of the East Bay’s portion of the 100,000 American children who are victims of commercial sex trafficking every year, according to a “conservative estimate” from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
WCC has served children as young as 10 years old who have been sold for sex in the Bay Area. Of the 113 who participated in the study, 60% of them were trafficked before the age of 14. Due to their emotional immaturity and other factors such as a desire for positive adult attention, “fewer than half recognize that their pimp or exploiter is not operating in their best interest.”
Yet the study, as part of its attempt to avoid “pathologizing” sexually exploited youth, lists 15 strengths exhibited by 23% to 83% of the participants, including cultural identity, creativity, self-expression, peer relationships, resourcefulness, leadership, and spirituality. The goal of the research is to inform policy and practices so sexually exploited minors can be provided “safe and healthy environments where they can thrive.”
The policy recommendations targeted getting minors out of sex exploitation through coordinated efforts of child welfare, behavioral healthcare, and juvenile justice. “While SEM are often under the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system after being arrested for prostitution, the appropriate system to serve them is child welfare,” the study says.
The study reports that most minors trafficked for sex are arrested for prostitution during some point of their exploitation, treating young victims “as criminals under the law.” This criminalization re-victimizes children and youth who have been sold for sex in our communities to predators.
WCC’s executive director Katz calls for decriminalizing minor victims and increasing penalties for men who pay to rape them. According to Katz, “As a community, we have to target the ‘demand’ side of this problem–the men who purchase sex with our most vulnerable youth as well as helping victims after the fact.
Katz’s recommendation is: “California should pass the legislation needed to specifically prohibit buying of sex with a minor, and to classify it as a felony. These men must be held accountable for their criminal activities. Just as buying illicit drugs is illegal, so is buying children for sex. The value of a child’s life is priceless; it’s not a part of any market in communities that care for their children.”
In this composite case example by Susan Drager, C-Change Program Director, the likelihood of a victim of minor sex trafficking in the East Bay never having an opportunity to “thrive” is very real based on current California law:
“Kari entered our C-Change program two years ago. She was bouncing around in the foster care system, kicked out of home after home nearly weekly due to her aggressive outbursts and frequent episodes of running away. When she came to us, Kari was not in school—she spent those hours forced to sell herself for sex on the streets of Oakland.
Two years later, after working with April, a psychologist at WestCoast, Kari is off the streets. Over these two years, April worked with Kari no matter which of the 13 foster and group homes she was living in, whether located in Oakland or Antioch. They met in locations in which Kari would be comfortable and safe—sometimes at McDonald’s or Starbucks.
Over time April earned Kari’s trust. April guided her through a psychological discovery process that enabled Kari to identify and articulate her hopes and dreams. She also learned the coping skills necessary to protect herself from predators. Further coaching on how to turn dreams into goals, and to understand the kind of effort and timetable needed to attain them, has helped her escape exploitation.
For example, Kari recently passed her GED exam, and wants to work in the culinary industry. She is excelling in a culinary employment program. A job, a career, a network of friends, a life are now possible.
But Kari could just have easily been charged with prostitution, put in jail, and had a very different future. “