LLos Angeles County supervisors on Tuesday approved a plan to develop a new treatment facility designed to allow the foster children who will live there to come and go while keeping out the pimps who would prey on them.
The unanimous vote follows two months of heated debate about whether such facilities should be able to prohibit children who are at risk of being lured or coerced into sex trafficking from leaving the premises.
On one side of the debate are those who say the state should act like a responsible parent to stop minors from leaving to meet sexual predators, including the pimps who are adept at psychologically manipulating and physically controlling the foster children and the johns who pay for sex with them.
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.
As a result of the vote, the county will work to develop an unlocked facility with enough security procedures to keep pimps out, but which will also allow the youths to leave if they wish.
“If they really want to leave, they can leave, but we want to discourage it by giving them a real opportunity to heal,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said in an interview.
Supervisor Don Knabe, who advocated for a locked facility, cited a recent case of an 11-year-old girl who left a foster care group home to return to her pimp and work at an event where men paid to have sex with her.
Knabe’s spokeswoman, Cheryl Burnett, said he is pleased that the supervisors got past the stalemate that had prevented the facility from moving forward.
She added, however: “He remains frustrated that he continues to hear that our ability to protect these girls is limited.”
County staffers are analyzing available public and private facilities as a site for the new center.
Possibilities include rehabilitating the closed MacLaren Children’s Center in El Monte or one of the probation juvenile detention camps.
The supervisors established a three-month deadline for a detailed plan.
Over the last year, county officials have trained police officers, prosecutors and other workers to no longer arrest such youths and place them in juvenile hall on prostitution charges.
Instead, they have been told to consider the young people victims and call a child abuse hotline so that the youths can enter foster care for protection and treatment.
About 100 minors still are locked in juvenile detention facilities on prostitution charges because the new training is in the initial phases.
But the system is increasingly diverting those arrested for prostitution to the county Department of Children and Family Services, and the agency believes that up to 300 of its current foster children have been victims of sex trafficking.