"There is no such thing as a child prostitute."
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department signed on to a nationwide campaign to treat underage sex workers as victims, not criminals, when Sheriff Jim McDonnell told his 18,000 employees to stop arresting them, or even referring to them as prostitutes.
"Children cannot consent to sex," Mr. McDonnell emphasized in a statement released Wednesday.
They are child victims and survivors of rape. Portraying these vulnerable children as anything else fails to acknowledge the trauma and victimization they have endured and serves to cloud the role of the criminally involved offenders.
Officers are encouraged to refer suspected victims to support services for abused children.
The shift echoes a national trend to better understand the problems that underlie crime and, where appropriate, swap punishment for healing — including for drug users, where rehab is often replacing prison sentences.
The sheriff department's new policies come on the heels of a similar step by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, part of a county-wide effort to crack down on the demand side of prostitution: tougher sentences for johns.
Some European countries have championed criminalizing solicitation, not prostitutes themselves, an idea that is slowly catching on in the United States. But for customers who solicit minors, in particular, L.A. hopes to make tougher policies such as longer prison sentences, child abuse charges, and registration as a sex offender "the rule, not the exception," county prosecutor Jane Creighton told CNS News.
"There should be no difference between raping a child and paying to rape a child," says Rights4Girls, a human rights organization spearheading the "No Such Thing" campaign.
Roughly 1,000 people under age 18 were arrested for prostitution in 2010, but experts say that number dramatically underestimates how widespread child sex trafficking is in the United States. Experts and activists are working to change the image of trafficking as a third-world problem far from home.
"One police commander said to me, 'The only way not to find this problem in any community is simply not to look for it,' " testified Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, before a 2010 Congressional committee.
"The good news is that America has begun to look," he says. "The bad news is that we have barely scratched the surface."
The center estimates that between between 100,000 and 250,000 children, or more, are sexually trafficked each year in the United States. More than half are homeless, either runaways or children thrown out of the house by their guardians.
Most are just 11 to 14 years old when first sold, say experts, and girls of color are disproportionately affected. Some 60 percent of those arrested were black.
On average, trafficking victims survive just seven years.
Los Angeles' twin foci – decriminalizing exploited children while cracking down on johns – may help it avoid the pitfalls of other approaches.
In August, Amnesty International called for the complete decriminalization of "consensual sex work" in an effort to provide prostitutes with health care and other protections. But critics, including former President Jimmy Carter, criticized the measure for its lenience towards buyers.
"It is not a human right of those with power and privilege to buy, for their own gratification, the bodies of those with financial, security, or emotional needs," he wrote in a letter to Amnesty conference delegates who were voting on the issue.
According to Mr. Carter, research shows that decriminalizing buying helps the spread of trafficking.
L.A.'s mission to get help for exploited children echoes a recent FBI sting, the largest-ever anti-trafficking operation, which rescued 149 children from pimps this month.
"Our main goal is to provide support and services for these young victims – to help stabilize them and get them moving forward in a positive direction," said an FBI victim specialist.
But directing minors towards social services may not prove a panacea. Given the number of children who fled home, are unwelcome there, or experienced abuse, many will be placed in the county's foster care system, which the Department of Children and Family services says is unprepared for the influx.
In fact, most minors arrested for prostitution in Los Angeles come from foster care in the first place, reports the Huffington Post.
Lieutenant Andre Dawson, a veteran L.A. detective of 32 years, explained to Los Angeles Magazine how experience has changed his view of young victims.
"The more I work with this population, the more I understand that 12- and 13-year-old girls don't just call each other up and say, 'Hey, let's go out prostituting,' " he told reporter Mike Kessler.
The majority have such a history of abuse, he says, that they don't even register their pimps' treatment as abusive — part of why so few are willing to testify against them.
"The chain is around the brain," Detective Dawson said.