First Step program gives girls a chance to put street life behind them

First Step program gives victims of pimps and sex traffickers a chance to put street life behind them

A few years ago, she would have been considered a "juvenile delinquent" and the horror visited upon her called a "victimless crime."

On Friday, she was celebrated as a role model by the very people who once would have helped herd her into jail — in a courthouse ceremony that reflected our justice system at its wise and compassionate best.

"I want to thank you all for never giving up on me," the tearful 17-year-old, in heels and hoop earrings, told prosecutors gathered to honor the first graduates of a diversion program for teens arrested for prostitution.

"There were times I wanted to do nothing; just turn back to the streets and forget about this," she said. "But you kept me going."

She was one of three girls to finish the First Step program, created by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and aimed at giving victims of pimps and sex traffickers a chance to put street life behind them.

The program is in the pilot phase, underfunded and oversubscribed. More than two dozen young people — including an 11-year-old girl and three teenage boys — now are working toward graduation.

If they finish a year-long regimen of counseling, classes and community service, "we tear up their arrests," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Phillip Glaviano, assistant head of the office's juvenile division.

The program also enlists community groups to provide internships, tutoring, therapy, shelter — whatever the youths and their families need.

That approach reflects a shift in culture that's long overdue.

Diversion programs for men who solicit sex have existed for years. After eight hours of "john school," a man can have his criminal charge dismissed — while the 14-year-old he paid for sex may wind up in juvenile hall.

She's not a streetwalker, she's a child in trouble. We ought to help, not punish her.

The law enforcement community finally has begun to embrace that.

"We're trained, as prosecutors, to hold people accountable," Glaviano said. "You make a choice, you're responsible for that. With these young people, once lawyers and law enforcement begin to understand their circumstances, that attitude fades and there's a lot of support."


That support was rewarded Friday with hugs and tears — and shout-outs for prosecutor Melissa Decker Cheslock, who has been on call 24/7 all year. She's become a surrogate big sister for the program's struggling girls.

"You opened up my eyes to a lot of things," said a graduate who was arrested last year at age 16. "Thank you, Melissa, for pushing me and always having faith in me."

Her mother cried as she listened to a girl who once fancied herself street-smart and now realizes there was so much she didn't know.

"She's so different," the mother told me. "If someone tries to approach her, she won't talk to people she doesn't know. She lets me know where she's going and what time she'll be back. Now she's taking classes.... She wants to be a nurse or a social worker."

There was wonder in her voice.

"They never made my daughter feel ashamed. She didn't want the program at first. But it has been life-changing for her."

For Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey — who built First Step on an idea inherited from her predecessor, Steve Cooley — the program required a leap of faith for both the girls and the prosecutors.

"I wasn't sure whether you ladies would trust us," she said. "This means we were wrong in the way we considered this crime for so many years. And it's good that we woke up, as human beings, and decided to reach out to you."

It was a feel-good moment for the D.A.'s team, a reminder that fighting crime requires more than putting crooks behind bars. You really can't have criminal justice unless you tend to the "justice" thing.


I like the project's name. It recognizes that, for these young people, this may be only the beginning of a long, hard journey.

I spoke with Rachel Thomas about that. She taught the program's final series of classes, with her "Ending the Game" lesson plan, drawn from a torturous passage in her own life.

Thomas grew up middle class in Long Beach, the doted-on child of professional parents. She was a junior at Emory University in Atlanta when she got involved with a man who promised her a modeling career. He was nice for a while, then turned violent.

"He forced me into trafficking," she said. "I became resigned to obeying."

It took her 10 months to find the strength to leave — and eight years to figure out why she had allowed herself to become a victim. "It's psychological manipulation," Thomas said. And it doesn't end when you leave the pimp.

Recovery, she said, can be complicated. "You have a nagging feeling that something is off, a hard time thinking like normal people.... Your boundaries have been broken," she said. "I struggled with thinking I was damaged goods."

But these girls are lucky — not because they have the D.A.'s blessing, but because they have each other.

"The thoughts linger. You can't share that with people," Thomas said. "But they can lean on one another for support, instead of letting shame take over.

"The old identity is being shed. And we have to help them replace that with something better."

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