Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell announced Wednesday that his department will immediately stop arresting children on prostitution charges.
“They are child victims and survivors of rape,” McDonnell wrote in a letter to his employees. “We must remember that children cannot consent to sex under any circumstance.”
Changing the way such children are viewed, from suspect to victim, falls in tandem with a national trend in recent years and marks a “major shift from where all of us in policing had been throughout history,” McDonnell said during a news conference Wednesday.
Officials say they want to instead call the child-abuse hotline and send the children to foster care, but Department of Children and Family Services Director Philip Browning has said that his department is not fully prepared to safely house and successfully treat all victims of child sex trafficking.
The new approach, which McDonnell stressed was “a work in progress,” is designed to focus on providing children with help rather than locking them up.
Wednesday’s news conference came a day after the L.A. County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a motion declaring “that there is no such thing as a ‘child prostitute.’” McDonnell said that he has instructed his employees to stop using the terms “child prostitute” and “underage prostitution.”
Using those terms, McDonnell said, strips responsibility from the traffickers and the people who pay to have sex with children.
“Buyers,” he said, “should be viewed as child molesters and predators.”
“I know what it’s like to be on the streets at Western [Avenue],” she said, adding that those memories still make her shake.
Pettigrew, who started a Change.org petition asking journalists to stop using the term “child prostitute,” said the term reinforces a negative stigma and the false belief that the victims are to blame.
“Labels are a big deal,” she said at the news conference. “Specifically to survivors.”