In July 2013, the FBI conducted a national sex-trafficking sting, dubbed “Operation Cross Country,” targeting underage victims of prostitution. The three-day raid rescued more than 100 teens, some as young as 13, including two in Los Angeles.
The operation was noteworthy not just for highlighting how pervasive and persistent a problem child sex trafficking is–the FBI has rescued more than 2,700 victims since 2003–but also for revealing how disproportionately it affects foster children. While no one knows for sure how many minors are involved in sex trafficking in California, according to a Los Angeles Times story about the sting, half come from the foster care system.
“It’s a huge problem among foster kids,” says Maureen Wharton, a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for CASA of Los Angeles. “And unfortunately it’s a problem many people don’t want to talk about. It’s taboo. But we have to talk about it if we want to save these kids.”
Maureen, or Mo, as her CASA youth like to call her, knows the situation well. For the last six years, she has been assigned to Shauna, now 15, a girl whose mother was a prostitute.
For a while, it looked as if Shauna might be lost to a similar fate. Besides having been born with drugs in her system, she had witnessed her mother’s sexual encounters and had been molested at an early age. By the age of 5, she was already highly sexualized.
The dependency court lawyer assigned to Shauna requested a CASA when Shauna’s foster mother was reluctant to adopt her.
“She wasn’t adoptable,” Mo explains. “The foster mom was wonderful but she couldn’t keep up with Shauna’s conditions.”
These included reactive attachment disorder, a condition that caused Shauna to form relationships indiscriminately. One tragic example of it took place on the eve of her eighth-grade graduation. She was due to receive the highest honor in the school for science, but after a sexual incident with a boy on the school bus, her school refused to let her participate in the graduation ceremony. Shauna promptly ran away from home.
She was soon picked up by the police, but none of her subsequent homes could handle her, either. She ran away again and again, and eventually she got picked up by a pimp. For the next three months, she lived on the streets of Los Angeles, working as a prostitute.
“There were sightings of her,” Mo says. “She would show up at church, run in and give everyone a hug and then run back out. It was like chasing a ghost.”
Then Shauna was arrested and placed in juvenile hall. By this time, Mo was Shauna’s education rights holder, and this gave her the leverage to press the school district for a special psychological evaluation, known as an educationally related mental health services assessment.
“That’s when everything started to change,” Mo says. “They realized she couldn’t go to a regular school. For her own safety, she would have to go out of state.”
Working together, Mo and the education attorney on the case found an intensive residential program to teach Shauna many of the essential life and family skills she lacked.
Such interventions are expensive, but when compared to the costs to society of failing to intervene–including crime and incarceration–it might very well be a bargain. It didn’t take long for Shauna to embrace it.
“How long do I have to stay here, Miss Mo?” she asked recently.
“Until it works and you’re doing okay,” Mo replied. “It might be a couple years.”
“Okay, I’ll do what I have to do,” Shauna said, adding confidently, “Miss Mo, I can never go back to Los Angeles.”
Mo, for her part, has agreed to continue as Shauna’s advocate until Shauna is out of high school.
“I can see a little patch of blue sky in her life now,” Mo says. “She looks like a kid again.”
More information about sexually exploited children is available from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, at www.missingkids.com.
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