"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.
But McDonnell and other officials acknowledged that they will need to press for changes in the law and how services are delivered to bring an end to the Catch-22 that law enforcement and judges currently face. In too many cases, officials say, they must use prostitution laws and arrest victims in order to intervene in child sex-trafficking cases because there is no other way to access the county's best intervention services provided by the Probation Department.
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.
When his deputies come into contact with a child they think is a victim of sex trafficking, McDonnell said, he's directed them to make calls to people who could assist them: the Department of Children and Family Services, the Probation Department and community organizations.
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."
Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, who said she was first trafficked at the age of 10 and often trafficked on the streets of L.A., praised the sheriff's decision and the supervisors' motion.
"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."