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So Young: Early Intervention for Young Runaways

Oakland and Alameda County are considered national models for their innovative programs to help underage prostitutes. Fourth in a series; watch for our final installment tomorrow.

Just across the Estuary, the Oakland Police Department is trying to stem a rising tide of underage prostitution. This is the fourth in our series on the problem; watch for our final installment tomorrow. You can read Part 1 , Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Bay City News — The Oakland Police Department has found that most girls who run away will be contacted by a pimp by the second time they leave home, even if they are only gone for 24 hours, says Sgt. Holly Joshi, a spokeswoman for the Oakland Police Department who spent three years with the department's vice and child exploitation unit.

The department set up a new system in early 2010 in which the third time a runaway is entered into the system, she's flagged for intervention, Joshi said.

"We want to let her know that running away is high risk in Oakland," she said. "Maybe a pimp has contacted her and given her his number, or she worked one time and hated it. That's when you get her. When she's in the lifestyle and her immunity has built up, that's when it's hard to get her out."

The Oakland Police Department's runaway intervention program is just one of the ways law enforcement and service providers in Alameda County are national leaders in the fight against domestic sex trafficking of minors.

When Joshi was in the child and sexual exploitation unit, she and Oakland police Officer Jim Saleda regularly visited schools, churches, and community centers to give talks about the signs of sexual exploitation, she said. Saleda has overseen the department's vice and child exploitation unit for years.

Oakland's was the second police department in the country — after Dallas — to begin recognizing the girls as victims, and the agency works with Bay Area Women Against Rape and other nonprofits to make sure the girls have advocates throughout their arrests and legal proceedings, Joshi said.

District Attorney Joins the Effort

After the girls working the streets are arrested, the Police Department and Alameda County District Attorney's Office lobby to have prostitution charges dropped as long as the girls agree to enter a program or otherwise work toward rehabilitation.

Even the girls who are convicted of prostitution eventually end up having their records cleared, said Assistant Public Defender Aundrea Brown, who is assigned to represent sexually exploited youth in court.

Juvenile court operates differently than the adult legal process, she said. Youth can enter informal probation programs without admitting guilt, and formal convictions are replaced by "findings" against offenders.

Further, prostitution is a misdemeanor offense, which means it does not need to be reported on job applications that ask for disclosure of felony arrests.

"We are certainly taking our precautions to make sure this does not follow them throughout their adult lives," Brown said.

Several nonprofits declined to help set up interviews with former sexually exploited youth, saying that even as adults the women could be in danger if their former pimps recognized them talking to the media.

Interviewing a girl still going through the legal process is extremely difficult because it requires permission from the girl, her guardians and the judge, and court records are sealed in juvenile cases.

The county continues to endorse arrest because officials say arresting the girls is the only way police can isolate them from their pimps long enough to start eroding the emotional attachment the pimps have fostered.

Most of the arrests are made during undercover stings, which alternately target johns and prostitutes. The department runs undercover stings every month, and the vice and child exploitation unit works to recruit female patrol officers to pose as prostitutes.

Three undercover officers working several hours can bust about 80 would-be johns, but the real victories are the one or two pimps who to try to recruit the undercover officers each time they go out.

Male undercover officers also pose as johns. One night in March, a four-hour undercover operation netted 24 prostitutes, six of whom were underage, Joshi said.

The vice and child exploitation unit also has a grant-funded officer dedicated solely to online exploitation who works with the Silicon Valley Internet Crimes Against Children task force to stay up to date on Web-based investigative techniques. 

The cases against the pimps are then turned over to Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Bock at the Alameda County District Attorney's Office. Bock prosecuted the state's first child sex trafficking case in 2006 and helped create the Human Exploitation and Trafficking, or HEAT, Watch, a multi-agency model to combat trafficking, in early 2010.

In May of that year, Bock was one of two deputy district attorneys who accompanied District Attorney Nancy O'Malley to Washington, D.C., to discuss the program with the president's Domestic Policy Council.

HEAT Watch received a $300,000 Department of Justice grant the following August for its work with Internet crimes against children.

This the fourth in a series on underage prostitution in Oakland that is appearing on Alameda Patch this week. Read the first article here, the second one here and the third one here. Next, our fifth and final installment: Despite government and nonprofit efforts to combat the sex trafficking of minors, the problem is growing faster than the attempted cures.

Copyright © 2011 by Bay City News, Inc. Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.

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