Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew was just a baby when she first entered the foster care system. By the time she was eighteen years old, she had been in fourteen different foster care placements. She also had spent seven years as a sexually exploited youth on the streets of Oakland.
But her childhood trauma didn't stop there. She said she also was repeatedly victimized by the juvenile justice system. "I was alone and terrified," said Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, referring to the times when police arrested her as a young teen for solicitation and then locked her up in juvenile detention.
Ortiz Walker Pettigrew's story is not uncommon. Sexually exploited youth are bought and sold every night on Oakland's streets. According to the FBI, the Bay Area is one of thirteen child trafficking hot spots nationwide, and Oakland is at the center of the problem.
As is the case for many youth who have been sexually exploited, Ortiz Walker Pettigrew's childhood was marked by neglect and various forms of abuse. She was shuffled around to so many foster care homes that, by age ten, when she met a man who promised to take care of her, she was not surprised there was also a catch: According to Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, he expected her to earn her keep by selling herself on International Boulevard, and beat her if she did not return with $1,000 each night.
Adults who sexually exploit children for profit — like the one who took advantage of Ortiz Walker Pettigrew — typically prey on vulnerable kids who have already endured years of trauma, according to advocates for youth. These exploiters (more commonly referred to as "pimps" — a term that youth advocates say does not accurately portray these abusive adult-child relationships) actively recruit kids from the state's most vulnerable youth populations: runaways, foster-care children, and continuation school students. They then coerce or force the children to sell their bodies to passing motorists or to work in dingy motels and massage parlors.
But it's the kids — not the exploiters — who usually end up getting arrested by police and put in a cell. "I was picked up over and over," said Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, who is now 24 and is an activist working to help sexually exploited children. "I was sent to juvie and left alone in a cell for days.
"The staff didn't understand the nature of exploitation," she continued, referring to the guards who kept her locked up. "They shamed me and treated me like a criminal."
Like many advocates for sexually exploited youth, Ortiz Walker Pettigrew contends that the current practice in California and elsewhere of incarcerating kids who had been coerced or forced into the sex trade re-victimizes these children and doesn't help them escape their abusers. "Detention does not equal prevention to me," she said. "Leaving a child isolated in a cement room is the same thing the exploiter does."
Police and prosecutors, however, defend the system, arguing that locking up kids is the only effective way to separate them from their exploiters and connect them to social services. Law enforcement officials note that sexually exploited minors often distrust social services, and that walkouts from shelters or residential treatment centers are common. "We take them to detention because it's the safest place for them," said Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Madden. "Sometimes it is necessary to detain them for a brief period for their own safety. If we didn't do anything here, I don't think we would be able to identify as many [exploited youth] or provide as many services."
But other advocates for sexually exploited children contend that the child welfare system, which is designed to protect abused kids, is better suited to help youth than the juvenile justice system. They also argue that laws need to change in order to recognize child sexual exploitation as a form of child abuse, so that kids aren't treated as criminals. "It seems to me that no matter what we believe, our current practice of incarcerating youth says: 'You've done something wrong and that's why we're locking you up and charging you with a crime,'" said Jodie Langs, policy director of WestCoast Children's Clinic, an Oakland-based children's psychology clinic. "This conveys the same thing that their traffickers do — that no one cares what happens to you."
Advocates say that, rather than being processed through the juvenile delinquency court, which tries cases involving children who have committed crimes, sexually exploited youth should be sent to juvenile dependency court, which processes children who have experienced abuse.
Last month, Governor Jerry Brown and the state legislature responded to some of the concerns raised by youth advocates by agreeing to create the Commercially Sexually Exploited Children Program, and to provide funding for it of $5 million this year, and $14 million each year thereafter. The program will enable California's child welfare services to develop the capacity to assist and serve sexually exploited youth.
Advocates consider the new funding and passage of Senate Bill 855, which created the program, to be a big step forward. SB 855 states that a child who is a victim of sexual exploitation can be sent to a county's dependency system, commonly known as child welfare. However, the bill still gives juvenile court judges the authority to treat sexually exploited minors as criminals.
A recent report from the California Child Welfare Council, a state advisory body, revealed that child exploiters actively seek out group homes and foster care residences to recruit kids. The 2012 report, "Ending the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children," estimated that 50 to 85 percent of sexually exploited kids are involved in the foster care system in some way.