When 16-year-old runaway Tattyanna Ahlstedt hit the streets of Hollywood three weeks ago, she was instantly set upon by pimps and hustlers who wanted to sell her body for money.
When Efrain Lopez arrived the last week of July, he saw street kids doing the illegal bidding of gang leaders and thugs, just as they do near his home in South-Central Los Angeles.
Law enforcement experts and social workers say this is part of a troubling pattern: Whether it’s pimps in Hollywood or gang chieftains in South-Central, adults are behind much of the crime committed by an estimated 10,000 or more juveniles in Los Angeles County who are broke, hungry, afraid--and homeless.
After all, the children and youths are too young to work or get an apartment or social welfare benefits. But they are young enough to steal, run drugs or prostitute themselves and expect lenient treatment from a sympathetic judicial system.
And they’re vulnerable, seeking out help and companionship from anyone they can, especially from adults who they think can protect them from the hardships of life on the streets.
Contending that predatory adults who victimize children are responsible for at least part of the recent surge of crime in Hollywood and elsewhere, U.S. Sen. John Seymour has proposed a solution: Sentence criminals who use juveniles to help them commit federal crimes to an extra three years of mandatory prison time on top of any other sentences imposed.
“Those who recruit these kids, induce them and coerce them, must be held accountable. They must pay, and pay dearly,” Seymour said as he toured the Options House runaway shelter in Hollywood last week and pushed the proposal at a meeting of local business leaders.
Seymour’s proposal, which supplements legislation dealing with drug crimes he authored as a state senator in California in 1987, was approved recently by the Senate as part of a pending federal crime bill. It has been welcomed by some police officers and social workers, including Options House executive director Leslie Forbes, who lamented that “modern-day Fagins have come to Hollywood.”
Forbes said there are as many as 100,000 runaways in California, including thousands just in Hollywood. They come seeking fame and fortune or to escape broken and abusive homes. They end up sleeping under bridges and in abandoned buildings in Hollywood, Venice Beach and elsewhere, often foraging for food in the dumpsters behind fast-food shops.
And the minute they get to a place such as Hollywood, adults--almost always men--virtually line up to wait for them, at the bus station downtown and in video arcades, strip joints, bars and restaurants in Hollywood.
In Ahlstedt’s case, men approached almost the minute she got off the bus, she said, and continued until she landed safely at Options House. A fidgety waif with braces on her teeth, luminous eyes and the accent of her native Brazil, Ahlstedt said she resisted the men, no matter how hungry, broke and alone she became.
“But that’s happened to many girls, and they become prostitutes,” she said. “It might feed them for a few days, but it’s not going to help. And with AIDS going around, and with the drugs. . . .”
Lopez also got a space at Options House. Most runaways, he said, have not been as smart, or as lucky.
“These kids get involved in the gangs and the drugs right away,” said Lopez, a shy but imposing 15-year-old. “They want to be in the spotlight, they want to be known. Being in a gang, their gang members will be there for them.”
Forbes said she personally has interviewed hundreds of runaways who have been coerced or cajoled by adults into committing crimes.
One young caller to a runaway hot line operated by the shelter recently said he was terrified of his pimp and that he was trying to get away. “Then the line went dead, and we never heard back,” Forbes said. “That one scared me a lot.”
In tracking the 210 runaways that entered her program last year, Forbes said she noticed two disturbing trends: They’re getting younger, now averaging 14 1/2 years old, and the number involved in serious crimes has soared by 50%.
“The younger the kids are, the more vulnerable they are,” Forbes said. “Inevitably, some older person comes along and flashes money or even flashes promises of what could be. And they believe.”
“It’s a major problem,” agreed Elizabeth Gomez, program director for one of the area’s largest shelter systems, the Hollywood-based Los Angeles Youth Network.
Gomez said several men are known by social workers to have taken in children with kind words or threats. The children are still out there somewhere, she said, panhandling, stealing money or goods to contribute to the group, prostituting themselves or making pornographic movies.
“We have several people in Hollywood driving us nuts,” she said, “and the kids won’t tell police.”
Los Angeles police officers say they cannot determine how many youths are under the control of predatory adults. But they agree it is a major problem and that Seymour’s proposed legislation will help.
“It will have the overall effect for Hollywood and the whole country of dissuading people from crime,” said Officer Peter Repovich of the LAPD’s Hollywood Community Relations team. “To me, you can’t get enough of that.”
Several police experts on juvenile crime, however, were skeptical of Seymour’s proposal.
“Kids who are runaways, in my opinion, are not involved in federal crimes, not enough to warrant federal legislation,” said Detective Sgt. Dallas Binger, the Los Angeles Police Department’s expert on juvenile crime. “It really boggles my mind that legislators can be listening to this crap and not paying attention to the real problems (like) curfew violations and delinquency that allow these kids to get started in crime in the first place.”
Binger said prostitution is only a federal offense if a juvenile is taken across state lines. The vast majority of prostitution offenses, thefts, drug deals and other crimes committed by juveniles are state or municipal crimes, he said.
Seymour acknowledged that laws exist to punish drug traffickers who coerce juveniles into helping them. But he said the proposed legislation would help prosecute gang members and crooks who coerce juveniles into trafficking in firearms, working for a continuing drug operation or helping to launder or extort money and manufacture drugs.
In many cases, many crimes that normally fall under state statutes are now being prosecuted as federal crimes because federal penalties can be harsher and the criminals’ assets can be seized under federal law, said Robert Hoffman, Seymour’s legislative assistant.
On his visit to Options House, Seymour also presented a $90,000 check from the federal government to help the shelter meet its $540,000 annual budget.