Young girls in foster care in Los Angeles are vulnerable to exploitation as sex workers and have little hope of support from a criminal justice system that treats victims of sexual abuse as criminals.
That was the message delivered at a lunchtime forum at UCLA Luskin Thursday by a juvenile court judge and staffers from the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services that are leading a pilot program to give the girls the services they need.
Judge Donna Quigley Groman, a 30-year veteran of the bench who serves as the supervising judge at South L.A.'s Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center, opened the discussion. She said she began working for change after hearing too many cases involving young women -- some as young as 9 or 12 years old -- that were clearly being forced to work as child prostitutes, but whom she was forced to put behind bars.
Rather than recognizing these children as victims of chronic sexual abuse, she said, current law instructs her to treat them as prostitutes -- the fact that money was paid meant that the age of the woman performing the sex act didn't matter. "Why is there a law that criminalizes this behavior when you're under 18 and you're accused of some crime?" she asked.
Girls in foster care are especially vulnerable, Groman said, because they lack any form of support and often have histories of abuse. "These girls will run away from their foster homes or group homes, and end up living on the stealth with no semblance of a normal life," she said. "By the time I see them and they've crossed into the criminal justice system, they're treated as criminals."
Tonya Octave, a social worker in DCFS' Compton office, said that she and her colleagues have done what they can to help young sex trafficking victims but the system limits their abilities to intervene. "These girls are looking for someone to keep them safe," she said. "DCFS hasn't done it, and their parents haven't done it."
Octave and her colleagues are working to train their fellow social workers to recognize victims of sexual abuse no matter their age. "People have different perceptions of a nine-year-old and a 16-year-old," she said, pointing out that the standoffish teenager across from her desk could have once been a little girl that had been abused. Octave's DCFS team is also working to centralize care, so troubled foster youth that have run away have one point of contact, for example, and can learn to find help from social workers.
Groman has launched a program called the Succeed Through Achievement and Resilience, or STAR, Court. With funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, the program aims to put families together with social workers and prosecutors before a case comes to the court, so that they can evaluate alternatives to pressing charges and find options for providing support.
The panel agreed that pilot programs are not enough, however. California's Proposition 35, which goes before voters this Nov. 6, would increase criminal penalties for sex traffickers and dedicate resources to treatment. Groman suggested that further change was necessary, though.
"As long as the law is on the books and kids can be locked up," judges' hands are tied, she said.
The forum was sponsored by the UCLA Inter University Consortium, and will be followed by similar events in the Winter and Spring quarters.