When most people think of human trafficking, they tend to consider it a crime that occurs overseas. The unfortunate reality is that this is a crime taking place daily right here in the United States and Los Angeles County is considered a hub for such activity.
Since 2011 when L.A. County was identified as a major hub for the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), the Los Angeles County Probation Department has paved the way for innovative and collaborative efforts to identify and provide services and support for children who are victims of sex trafficking.
The Los Angeles County First Responder Protocol was implemented in 2014 revolutionizing the way law enforcement and social services personnel approached and treated victims of sex trafficking. L.A. County Probation Director Michelle Guymon has been central to the effort to actively develop training programs to address the issue of sex trafficking and assist victims with getting out of “the life.”
“Perhaps the most profound thing that we have done is to change the way in which we refer to these youth,” explains Ms. Guymon. “We no longer call them prostitutes and treat them like criminals. They are in fact victims, and since they are victims, they need to be given access to services and treatment to help them heal and become whole again. Probation staff are trained to ask the right questions to help identify which kids in our custody are considered CSEC and how to best serve this growing population.”
Since the implementation of the Protocol in August 2014 through August 2018, over 361 girls and boys have been rescued from the clutches of sex-trafficking. This January alone as part of the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force’s Operation Reclaim and Rebuild, 14 minor victims were recovered. In that four-year period, data collected by L.A. County Probation revealed that the average age of a CSEC victim was 15 with the youngest being 11.
Oree Freeman, who at the age of 12 was a victim of sex trafficking in L.A. County, knows all too well about the horrors of commercial sexual exploitation. While still under Probation supervision, Oree created and presented “In Her Heels,” an educational presentation about the sex industry and how children become victims of a multi-billion-dollar black market often taking place in plain sight. In her presentation Oree educated foster care staff with her in-depth descriptions of how sex trafficking operates and how victims are selected, groomed and forced to work in dangerous conditions.
Survivors willing to speak about their experiences has contributed to a wave of awareness that ultimately led to significant reform. Oree is now a CSEC advocate and mentor helping to lead the movement that has resulted in law enforcement leaders changing their perceptions of sex crime victims.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors formally recognized January as National Human Trafficking Awareness Month and honored Oree for her decade-long advocacy and work in helping survivors of human trafficking. As she spoke her former Probation officer, Deputy Probation Officer Terrika Woolfolk, was holding her newborn baby.
“Thinking back to when I first started at 12 years old and to where I am now has been a full circle and I couldn’t have done that without the people who are here,” Oree said thanking members of Probation. “We have a lot more work left to do. As we all go home to today, children will be exploited tonight, but they have a chance because of the people and compassion that you all give and that I received. I can’t thank Probation and the Department of Children and Family Services enough for giving me hope when I had none, for giving me a new chance on life by being there consistently.”
Oree continues to be a highly sought-after speaker, trainer and peer advocate with the community-based nonprofit organization, Saving Innocence. After a short time off to raise her newborn daughter, she plans to continue her college education in psychology to advance her work in child advocacy and combatting human trafficking.