L.A. County supervisors debate whether to lock up at-risk foster youth

The problem with sex-trade recruiters is especially acute at the Youth Welcome Center, a holding room on the campus of Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where some of social workers' toughest cases stay while awaiting a foster home.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

It’s a universal principle: Lock up the criminal not the victim.

No one has ever doubted that the pimps who brazenly exploit the foster care system to profit from the sex trade are criminals. But it took awhile for Los Angeles County decision makers to reach a consensus that the vulnerable children these pimps recruit are not.

Now some of the same decision makers are deadlocked on a more complex question: When, if ever, is it OK to lock up the victims — foster children, some as young as 10 — to protect them from aggressively manipulative pimps?

In Los Angeles County, foster care authorities, the district attorney, the sheriff, supervisors and voters all have resolved over the last three years that sex-trafficked youth should no longer be tried and incarcerated as criminals, but rather sheltered in foster care and offered services to protect them and help them heal.


But as county supervisors debate establishing a treatment center for these youth, the issue of locking up foster children has become a quagmire.

On one side are those who say the state should act like a responsible parent to stop children from leaving their home to meet pimps and johns. On the other side are those who say that locking up children mirrors the confinement that predators subject them to, and will ultimately fail to cure the problem.

“This is really the issue that everyone keeps coming back to,” said Allison Newcombe, an attorney with the Alliance for Children’s Rights who represents sex-trafficked children. “Everyone has such strong opinions.”

Law enforcement officials say criminal gangs have increasingly turned from selling drugs to selling children for sex because a drug can be sold once, but a child can be sold repeatedly. According to the California Child Welfare Council, a child’s life expectancy after being involved in sex trafficking is seven years, with AIDS and homicide being the leading causes of death.

Pimps capitalize on the porous barriers between foster care facilities and the outside world, advocates say, by calling vulnerable children, sending them letters and infiltrating group homes with young recruiters. In some cases, the pimps persuade children to get tattoos of their names.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who opposes efforts to allow locking up foster children who are at risk of being lured into sex trafficking, said the recruitment for prostitution in the county’s juvenile detention facilities proves that confining children is not a solution.


Leading the push to establish a locked facility for some foster youth are Los Angeles County’s child welfare chief, Philip Browning, and Supervisor Don Knabe. Both are lobbying Sacramento lawmakers to change laws that currently prohibit confining foster care youth who are at risk.

Browning said he reluctantly came to support such an option after social workers watched children as young as 10 and 11 run from county foster care facilities to rendezvous with pimps and johns.

“We have a small number of youth in foster care where our current programs simply haven’t worked,” Browning said. “Frankly, I’m not certain that the current facilities provide the level of security that I would like.”

Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 35 in 2012 to greatly increase penalties for pimps who traffic minors, but prosecutions have not kept pace with the problem.

Traditionally, youth involved in prostitution were sent to delinquency lockups in California until the passage of the measure, which states that such minors are victims of human trafficking and should not be treated as criminals.

County officials responded by training police officers, prosecutors and other workers to no longer arrest such youth and place them in juvenile hall on prostitution charges. Instead, they were told to call the child abuse hotline so that the youth could enter foster care for protection and treatment.


About 100 minors still are locked in juvenile detention facilities on prostitution charges because training is in the initial phases. But the system is increasingly diverting them to the county Department of Children and Family Services, and the agency believes that up to 300 of its current foster children have a history of sex trafficking. Authorities can detain them only if they are arrested for a crime or placed under a psychiatric hold because they represent a clear harm to themselves or others.

States nationwide are experimenting with locked and unlocked approaches, but child welfare officials complain that no comprehensive studies have been completed to compare their effectiveness. In Utah and Texas, group homes treat victims in locked facilities, and officials in other states — including California — sometimes send their children to those states so they can be locked up while receiving services.

The problem with sex-trade recruiters is especially acute at the Youth Welcome Center, a holding room on the campus of Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where some of social workers’ toughest cases stay while awaiting a foster home. A recent Times report detailed a case of suspected recruitment for prostitution there. Knabe and Supervisor Hilda Solis announced their support for a locked facility three days later.

Nick Ippolito, Knabe’s child welfare deputy, said “the pimps are using our facilities as waystations for these kids, who they treat as commodities, and everyone has acknowledged that these kids are going to run eight to 10 times before they realize the terrible situation they are in and are more interested in services.”

In rare instances, children who have been exploited by pimps have asked to be placed in a locked facility, according to child welfare officials.

“They ask to be in locked facilities because they know if they don’t … go back to their pimp, there will be consequences,” Newcombe said.


Kim Biddle, the executive director of Saving Innocence, a leading group working with sexually exploited youth, is one of the experts being consulted by county supervisors. She said the issue is so controversial, “I don’t know if I should give an opinion publicly.” She reluctantly endorsed a locked option for some of the youth.

“We, as the state, are responsible for children who have endured the highest levels of trauma imaginable … they feel such a strong sense of Stockholm syndrome that they would run back to their trafficker’s arms,” Biddle said. “They have been told that their whole family would be killed if they don’t.”

Under the plan envisioned by Browning and Knabe, some of the sexually exploited youth at the highest risk of running away would be placed in lockup on a DCFS recommendation and under orders from a judge who would reevaluate the decision every 30 days. While there, the youth would receive intense mental health treatment, mentorship by survivors of sex trafficking and other services.

But Browning acknowledges that, for the plan, “the support is not there.” The County Welfare Directors Assn. of California rebuffed his request to endorse locked facilities as an option for some youth. And the Board of Supervisors’ vote stalled after Kuehl voiced opposition.

“I hate to sound like too much of a real American but I believe in the justice system,” Kuehl said. “If you have committed a crime, you get a trial. If you haven’t committed a crime, you are entitled to be treated as a free citizen and we don’t lock you up.”

Kuehl said the recruitment for prostitution in the county’s juvenile detention facilities proves that locked facilities don’t stop sex trafficking.


Kuehl and Browning were in agreement that foster families are the best possible option for most of the youth involved in sex trafficking, and the county is working with the state to gain approval for special “treatment foster parents” who would be paid significantly more money than regular foster parents so they can quit their jobs if needed and focus singularly on the youth.

But even if state approval for treatment foster parents is granted, Browning said he still sees a need for locked facilities for those children most vulnerable to relentless pimps.

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Michael D. Antonovich have remained publicly neutral on that proposal.

Solis, who initially supported Browning’s plan, issued a statement following the delayed vote that she “preferred” unlocked facilities. Her spokeswoman declined to say whether she would still allow a locked option.

Knabe pledged to force a vote on the issue later this month.