Trafficked: A Youth Radio Investigation
By Youth Radio's Investigative Unit
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Oakland is known as a center for sex trafficking, with a specialty in children. Police say Oakland youth are trafficked from their hometown out to other sex hubs like Portland, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Atlanta.
Mid-level traffickers can make more than $500,000 dollars a year marketing just four girls. Oakland police say long standing networks of gangs and drug dealers are moving into the sex trafficking of minors because they see it as a lucrative business.
Both prosecutors and victims’ advocates are both frustrated by California law which makes it very difficult to apprehend johns or prosecute pimps, and very easy to go after the girls.
“We’re out there looking for pimps, anyone involved in human trafficking,” said Lieutenant Kevin Wiley, Head of the Vice and Child Exploitation Unit in Oakland, California.
“If we can pick up some of the girls that’s great. We’re targeting children, but we do want to get the big fish, that is the pimps out there,” said Wiley.
Until four years ago, Lt. Wiley’s unit prioritized arresting traffickers and johns. But those operations and the funding that made them possible—have been cut. Instead the Oakland Police Department now targets child prostitutes, in an effort to get them off the streets—and to get them to give up the names of their pimps.
'It's Busy Around Here'
Recently, Youth Radio followed an Oakland Police Department sweep to find out more about how police are working to fight sex trafficking.
As the police sweep began on a weekday afternoon, undercover cops drove beat-up used cars out to East Oakland’s International Boulevard, the center of Oakland’s Red Light district known as “The Track”.
For these sweeps, police use a county probation rule that prohibits girls with prior prostitution arrests from going near International Boulevard. Police say they don't have to see a girl making arrangements to get paid for sex in order to arrest her.
On this particular fall day, a plainclothes officer watched from across the street as a young woman in a short skirt stood on the corner outside an empty storefront. A squad car pulled up.
Two officers from the squad car approached the woman, handcuffed her, and drove her to a makeshift command center in a police van parked behind a nearby Lucky’s supermarket.
“It’s busy around here,” said Lt. Wiley. “We’ve only been here 45 minutes and we already have five girls that we’ve detained, arrested, one is a juvenile, so they’re going to do an interview with her.”
The 15-year-old girl is separated from the adult prostitutes and placed in the back of a police car. She’s wearing short shorts and sandals with shiny silver straps crisscrossing up to her mid calves.
Police questioned the girl; a victim advocate contracted by the county was nearby and remained in close contact with her throughout the booking process. The police officer used the victim’s pink cell phone to dial her parents who were about 200 miles away in Fresno, California.
“Alright so what’s going to happen now is she’s going to go to down to the police department in the juvenile hall section, and more than likely you’re going to have to come get her some time tonight okay?” the officer told the victim’s parents. There’s a pause, as the officer listened to their response.
“I understand that you’re in Fresno, but do you have any family members out here? Adults?” asked the officer.
“Okay, I’m just letting you know that she’s under arrest for soliciting prostitution.”
To release this girl, police have to put her in the custody of her parents or a legal guardian. Police say the girl’s parents never did pick her up. She was sent to juvenile hall. And she never divulged the name of her pimp.
By the end of this sweep, police had arrested 7 adult women, 3 girls, 1 pimp and no johns. Police estimate 100 minors are working as prostitutes on Oakland’s “track” every night.
'The Easiest Person To Arrest Is The Child'
Though they arrest few pimps and prosecute even fewer, Oakland police insist that arresting the girls is a necessary first step towards shutting down sex trafficking. But many child advocates disagree.
“The reason why we arrest them is because they are the easiest person to arrest,” said Nola Brantley, Executive Director of MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth). Brantley was trafficked as a teenager and co-founded MISSSEY in Oakland to help get girls out of the sex trade.
“It’s hard to arrest the exploiters because of the amount of evidence necessary, so the easiest person to arrest is the child,” said Brantley.
Brantley believes these children are not really prostitutes, but victims.
“Every act of what’s called quote unquote ‘prostitution’ with these children is actually a form of child sexual abuse and to take it further, child rape. So, I don’t think children who are raped should be criminalized,” said Brantley.
Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Sharmin Bock counters that arresting the girls is actually a way to save them. Bock says it gives the county a way to introduce victimized girls to social services.
“Having a court involved with a case hanging over your head provides that added incentive to stay in a program at the end of which, a great likelihood exists that you will in fact recognize that you were in fact exploited,” said Bock.
Bock insists the logistics of going after the men on the other hand, is daunting.
“It’s very hard to get a hold of those johns,” said Bock. “Because by the time you hear about it, they’re just a number, it’s the child telling you, ‘I had sex with 16 different men yesterday, they’re long gone’.”
A Booming Industry Online
There’s yet another factor that makes it hard to ensnare pimps and johns—the internet.
Craigslist has removed the section that was used for sex trade, but there are many other sites. What used to be a local prostitution business is now global and can easily move out of the reach of law enforcement in an online world that parallels America’s red light districts.
“Even though these guys think they’re not leaving any track online they are,” said Marty Parker, who works on human trafficking cases for the FBI’s Oakland office.
“Just a pimp posting an ad for these girls on MyRedBook.com, that gives us their interstate nexus right there and we can then bring federal charges against him,” said Parker.
However, just because pimps aren’t invisible to law enforcement, that doesn’t mean they’ll be prosecuted anytime soon.
“We could do it everyday if we had the man power to do it. Unfortunately there are too few people working on this in the FBI,” said Parker.
Youth Radio’s investigation has also uncovered another crucial part of the online sex trafficking infrastructure.
Girls and victim advocates describe photo studios in Oakland where girls—including minors – pose in sets that look like bedrooms. Studios provide lingerie, wigs and makeup. Some routinely upload X-rated photos, and write and post online ads in other cities – setting up a kind of a “sex tour” and lining up customers.
Fast moving technology allows sex traffickers to stay ahead of authorities. Child advocates say the laws need to catch up with what’s happening online and on the street because America’s girls are out there day and night--for sale.
Youth Radio Investigates: Trafficked, on NPR’s All Things Considered tells the stories of two teenagers who were trafficked on the streets of Oakland. The investigation uncovers how the city’s law enforcement has responded to a sex trafficking industry that is thriving in plain sight. The series continues on youthradio.org and The Huffington Post, where multimedia reporting goes deeper to reveal the varied perspectives of girls sold for sex on the streets and online, and a pimp "business plan" provided by prosecuters.