As many as 325,000 U.S. children are at risk for being sexually exploited, according to one of the more reliable assessments. The FBI’s sting operation against child prostitution, announced Monday, included numerous sites in the Bay Area; 12 children across multiple counties were rescued.
Many children’s advocates consider Oakland in particular as a hub for child prostitution. One reason experts cite Oakland is its relatively large number of group homes for a city of its size. Pimps know kids at group homes are vulnerable, and there are currently 16 such licensed facilities in the city.
KQED’s Stephanie Martin talked with Sarai Smith, program coordinator with Alameda Family Services. Smith says her nonprofit is using public funds to build a different kind of group home — one designed specifically to protect at-risk girls.
Here’s the edited transcript of their discussion:
Stephanie Martin: Can you describe the home you’re building?
Sarai Smith: This is a Victorian home with six beds for six girls that have been previously commercially sexually exploited in Alameda County. With this home, we are here to empower these girls and give them a place to call home. A lot of these girls have not had a place to call home.
Martin: What makes Oakland a hub for sex trafficking?
Smith: It has always been called a hub. It has just been so invisible to everyone of what’s been going on. So what really makes Alameda County a hub, Oakland a hub, is we have tons of children that have been abandoned and neglected by their parents and the system as well. When we have girls that are being neglected and abandoned, they do not have a reality of what a family is and what love is; they are seeking and looking for it, in all the wrong places, not knowing what a healthy family and healthy love looks like.
Martin: I understand a lot of the pimps that are coming in are not from Oakland. They’re from other parts of the country, not even the Bay Area.
Smith: They understand that this business is not just an Oakland business, it’s a human trafficking trade. We get men coming, knowing and saying when they get picked up by the police, “I knew I could come to Oakland and have sex with a child.”
Martin: You’ve worked with vulnerable youth in a variety of service organizations and capacities. What’s different about this place that you’re building now?
Smith: We’re not institutionalized. We have partners — as well as ourselves — that have expertise, that are specialized in working with exploited children. We feel we have the necessary skills to actually be able to make a difference in exploited children’s lives.
Martin: What can the community do to help identify these kids and get them the help they need?
Smith: It’s so important for our communities to be aware of what’s going on. When you’re out late at night and you see a girl just hanging out on a corner — just hanging there — it’s very likely she’s being exploited and that her pimp is just in a car, maybe two cars down, watching.
It’s important for you to be aware and to understand them and don’t feel that these girls want to be out there. They are being forced to be out there. This is not something they wake up and decide to do. They do not decide to be out there and have sex with multiple men for a profit for someone else. Second, to learn about them and to educate their family, their friends, other people, but also maybe volunteer for an organization that’s working with exploited children. You can join an outreach team that goes out there on the street to give out food, self-care packets, and you’re able to uplift them. There are a lot of churches that are involved in this movement as well, that are just doing what they can to help the girls. So many factors play into it, I think the most important is to become aware of what’s going on and educate anyone they know.