Childhood sexual abuse is a key risk factor in the commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) of youth in the U.S. Yet there is also a “direct correlation” between “girls’ high rates of sexual abuse and their increased involvement in the juvenile justice system,” according to the recent “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story” report by the Human Rights Project for Girls, Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and Ms. Foundation for Women.
The “effect of trauma and abuse . . . drives girls into juvenile justice,” the report summarized. Sexually abused girls’ “common reactions to trauma are criminalized and exacerbated by involvement in the juvenile justice system, leading to a cycle of abuse and imprisonment.”
The report cited a study of girls in Oregon’s juvenile justice system where 76% of them had been sexually abused by the age of 13 and a different study of girls in California’s juvenile justice system where 56% of them had been sexual abused.
“Justice-involved girls are victimized by sexual violence at an earlier average age, and for a longer duration, than other forms of abuse,” the report indicated, including an example from the CA study that the age at which girls in the juvenile justice system were most likely to have been sexually abused was five years old.
Not only is “sexual abuse one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system,” it is also increases the likelihood of being arrested again as a “re-offender.” The report stated: “Sexual abuse is one of the strongest predictors of whether a girl will be charged again after release; in fact, it appears to have a greater impact on girls’ re-entry into the system than other risk factors.”
For minors who are sex trafficked, they are often arrested for the “crime” of being victimized by their traffickers. Oakland’s WestCoast Children’s Clinic reported that “most SEM [sexually exploited minors] are arrested for prostitution at some point in the course of their exploitation.” From 2002 to 2011, CA made 4,444 arrests of minors for prostitution. 594 of those arrests were of children between 12 and 14 years old.
Yet arrests for solicitation or prostitution are not the only entry into the juvenile justice system for sex trafficked minors. In a study of 204 sexually exploited youth served by leading direct service provider M.I.S.S.S.E.Y., 58% had been arrested for solicitation yet 86% had been arrested on other charges.
A report about commercially sexually exploited youth served by the SAGE Project in San Francisco revealed that the average number of times they had been arrested at the time of the survey was 5.7. A review of 367 youth identified in Alameda County as being vulnerable to or victimized by commercial sexual exploitation revealed that 64% of them were involved in the juvenile justice system.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office’s H.E.A.T. (human exploitation and trafficking) Watch initiative takes an informed and proactive response to the fact that “many female minor victims of human trafficking will come into contact with the juvenile justice system.” So the Office deliberately identifies “those who are being trafficked or at-risk for becoming trafficked early on in the process in order to identify needs and provide services.”
In 2011, the Office established “Girls Court” with a dedicated prosecutor and public defender who have in-depth knowledge of the background of each girl appearing on every Girls Court case—her challenges, needs, and strengths. Additionally, the Office established a multi-disciplinary working group with members of the District Attorney’s Office, Prosecution, H.E.A.T. Watch staff, defense counsel, Probation, Social Services, mental health providers, victim advocates, rape crisis counselors, and others. It meets weekly to discuss individual cases with a focus on healthy, safe aftercare for affected youth with their best interests in mind.
This D.A.’s Office knows that a young girl who has run away from a “dysfunctional and often dangerous home” and has had contact with “law enforcement and social service providers” is “the perfect prey for an exploiter” eager to traffic the vulnerable. So the Office strives to change the way law enforcement views minors engaging in commercial sex: “Our exploited youth must be seen for what they are, children who are victims of abuse in many different forms.”
“Once the philosophical shift has occurred,” the D.A.’s Office contends, “it is inevitable that a victim-focused response must be taken.” Such a response will prioritize protection and aftercare with services and resources to break the cycle of childhood sexual abuse to commercial sexual exploitation to juvenile justice detention.