Victims, Not Criminals

Two years ago, Los Angeles County probation officer Michelle Guymon was asked to help child abuse experts study human trafficking. The human trafficking victims she studied were local girls forced into sex — not much different from the hundreds she’d encountered in juvenile hall, locked up and punished for working the streets.

“That was an ‘aha’ moment for me,” she recalled. “I didn’t make the correlation with the girls I had been working with: These are the girls being sexually exploited. This is not just some bad choice they made.” Now Guymon is serving on a county task force charged with translating that insight into policy with the goal of finding ways to keep young girls out of prostitution and treating them as victims, not criminals.

More than half of juveniles arrested in Los Angeles County on prostitution-related charges have been under the care and supervision of the Department of Children and Family Services, the county’s child welfare arm.  Many have already been abused and taken from their families. Some are living in group homes where they feel unloved or ignored. “Pimps know that and prey on that,” Guymon said. “We’ve had girls 11 and 12 years old, who get sucked in by ‘I’ll never do what your father did. I’ll take care of you. I love you.’ ”

“People are looking for this big magic to happen. But we’ve got to be up for the fight,” Guymon said. A 14-year-old in hot pants on a corner at 2 a.m. needs more than a lecture and a jail cell, more even than a change of clothes and a promise that someone cares. She needs changes in a system that’s failing to reform streetwise teens and protect vulnerable girls.

“The whole victim-versus-criminal thing is what we have to deal with,” she said. “It’s time for law enforcement to say, we’re not going to criminalize these girls. These girls are being beaten, exploited, coerced…. We are going after the traffickers.”

Learn more at Sandy Banks’ Los Angeles Times article: Treating them as victims, not criminals.

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