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L.A. County plans court to help child prostitutes

L.A. County wants to create a court that would focus on helping foster care children lured into prostitution

Los Angeles County authorities are planning a specialized court to handle the growing number of young people in foster care who street predators have lured or bullied into prostitution.

The court would be designed to significantly increase the time and attention judges, lawyers, social workers and specially trained advocates spend helping minors, mainly teens, who have been detained for taking money in exchange for sex.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Sex trafficking: In the Feb. 27 California section, an article about Los Angeles County's efforts to establish a new court for sex trafficking victims said that the county's Department of Children and Family Services estimated that as many as 300 young people in foster care are selling themselves for sex. In fact, up to 300 foster children have a history of being sold for sex and currently require intervention services, according to Diane Iglesias, a senior deputy director of the department.
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County child welfare authorities already are training law enforcement officers to call the child abuse hotline instead of booking minors on criminal charges. This approach sends the youth into the foster care system rather than the delinquency system, where they would be defined as perpetrators rather than victims. The proposed court would build on that approach.

Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services estimates that as many as 300 young people in foster care are now selling themselves for sex.

Leslie Starr Heimov, who leads the court-appointed law firm for foster youth, said the current system is often unable to effectively pull the young people out of the sex trade because they meet with judges too infrequently — usually every six months — and encounter an ever-changing array of social workers and other professionals who fail to establish a stable connection with them.

"There needs to be much more accountability for the social workers and the youth," Heimov said.

Michael Levanas, who became presiding judge of Juvenile Court last month, said he has identified the creation of such a court as one of his early priorities and is seeking funding.

"If we can find the resources, I would be thrilled to do it tomorrow," Levanas said. The young prostitutes, he said, "are victims and they have no home environment. They are very susceptible to being preyed upon."

Heimov has been developing the proposal for the court with Diane Iglesias, senior deputy director of DCFS, who said the department is "100 percent behind this."

Since summer, DCFS has received 17 youth who were initially detained but not charged with prostitution. Only one has dropped out of treatment and returned to the streets, Iglesias said.

"We have specialized social workers. . . who are extremely dynamic, well-trained and available to the girls 24/7," Iglesias said.

In 2011, advocates for sex trafficking victims helped create a delinquency court that they say moved the issue forward. This court focuses singularly on children charged with prostitution and provides . advocates from at least three charities and survivors of sex trafficking to mentor and counsel the young people. It also offers educational liaisons and lawyers who sit in the jury box of the courtroom to connect with the youths as soon as the need arises.

For the youth under the delinquency court's jurisdiction, the average number of days spent in juvenile detention has dropped from 35 days to 20 days. Seventy-three percent of the young people have not been rearrested and 22% remained in contact with a member of the support team even after the case was closed and they were no longer obligated to stay in touch.

That court, however, still processes these young people as criminals.

Allison Newcombe, who has worked in the delinquency court as an attorney from the Alliance for Children's Rights, said a foster care court "would allow us to take a truly victim-centered approach to this problem."

On a referral basis, Newcombe has already begun working with foster youth who have not entered the delinquency system, including a 14-year-old girl whom an adult pimp had kidnapped and sold online and on the street.

Although the girl's resolve to leave the street life sometimes wavers, Newcombe said, "she has explained her college dreams. I see such a desire in her to fully escape."

More than 60% of Los Angeles County's children arrested on suspicion of prostitution had previously come to the attention of the Department of Children and Family Services, and the foster care system's group homes have become one of most frequent gateways to sexual exploitation because predators know these young people have few if any family members looking after them.

"The opportunity for some of our sex-trafficked girls to get involved in recruitment is real, but we can put safeguards in place," Iglesias said.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Follow @gtherolf

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