Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Eshraghi Bock at the California State Capitol
by Barabara Grady and Sarah Terry-Cobo
This is Part 5 of an eight-part, four-day Oakland Local investigative series on youth sex trafficking.
In Alameda County, Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Eshraghi Bock has been on a hard-fought campaign to change California law.
Together with state Assemblyman Sandre Swanson (D-Oakland), Bock has crafted laws that switch the criminalization in prostitution to the pimps and johns and away from girls. They successfully drafted and pushed through law AB 499, which recognizes that youth who are traded are victims in this crime who deserve services. They also drafted, introduced and ushered into law AB 17, which toughened the sentencing of and restitution required from convicted pimps.
However, the biggest challenge is convicting the pimps. It's difficult for police even to have grounds to arrest them...
California's human trafficking law AB 236.1 requires that law enforcement show that a suspect used force or coercion against a minor to prove trafficking took place. Other states' laws are similar.
This aspect of the law fails to recognize the dynamics of the commercial sex slave trade, many experts say.
Usually, a pimp convinces his recruit that he is her boyfriend, Bock says.
"A young girl experiencing her first love, she doesn't get that she's being exploited or victimized," she said. "Many children and women become trafficking victims simply because they don't know what love is and they're looking for love in all the wrong places."
"What is force or coercion?" she continued. "She's going out to dinner with him. Sure he raped her, but later they were friends."
"Look at Jaycee Dugard. It is not a mystery; she bonded with her captors. It is called the Stockholm Syndrome."
Pimps who do get arrested and charged with trafficking a minor know the law is on their side. They know, according to investigator Jim Saleda, of the Oakland Police Department's Child Exploitation and Vice Unit, and deputy DA Bock, that a girl is unlikely to testify voluntarily in court against her pimp. It's doubly unlikely she will say he forced or coerced her into action.
"It is really hard to get one of these girls to turn on her pimp. They are afraid they'll be beat up," said Saleda.
"We've had some girls dumped," he said, shaking his head. "As in murdered and dumped."
Bock splits her time between the courtroom in Oakland, the statehouse in Sacramento, and flying around the country educating public servants. But while the arduous process of changing laws remains unfinished, she refuses to sit around waiting.
Instead -- using charges of kidnapping, rape or assault -- the Human Exploitation and Trafficking (HEAT) unit she leads at the DA's office has brought 148 pimps to court over the past four years and won 110 felony convictions.
Working with Saleda and Lt. Kevin Wiley, head of the Oakland Police Department's vice and child exploitation unit, the three build cases from the arrest through conviction and sentencing.
State prosecutors fighting the scourge of human trafficking of children won a victory on April 13, 2010: The General Assembly's public safety committee voted unanimously to pass a bill out to the floor that would remove some of the obstacles to prosecuting traffickers.
California Assembly Bill 2319 amends the state's human trafficking law (AB 236.1) so that, to prove trafficking, prosecutors no longer must show that a suspected trafficker used force, fraud or coercion to violate the liberty of a child.
In these cases, prosecutors say this requirement constitutes unrealistic proof -- since most pimps are deceptive and emotionally manipulate youths into becoming commercial sex slaves. Force often is not necessary because children do not realize pimps are manipulating them.
"Minors, as many of our laws recognize, are more vulnerable and gullible than adults," Bock told the Public Safety Committee. Children, she noted, often become enamored with their captors.
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, while testifying in support of AB 2319 before the Public Safety Committee, said, "It is crucial that California update the law" to reflect the realities of child trafficking.
"There is a dangerous gap that exists in the law as it stands -- and that gap makes it more difficult for prosecutors to prosecute the law against traffickers of children," Harris added. "As prosecutors, we should not have to prove that traffickers used force, fraud or coercion. Just the fact that the victim of human trafficking is a child should be enough legally to establish that that level of crime occurred."
"Commercial sexual exploitation of minors is the most hidden form of child abuse in our country. It is our fastest growing epidemic," Bock told the committee.
Bay Area district attorneys' offices are not the only agencies leading the fight for tougher penalties. A concerned citizen group, California Against Slavery, is collecting signatures to help make the Golden State's trafficking laws the strictest in the nation. Activist Daphne Phung was inspired by an MSNBC documentary about a human trafficking case in Detroit -- and quickly learned that laws here are also lax. She's building momentum by educating students and the public about this issue.
This group's network of volunteers, students and activists has criscrossed California in an attempt to gather the 600,000 signatures needed to put their voter initiative on the ballot. Unable to reach the goal before the March 31 deadline, the group is working to put the issue on the 2012 state ballot.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley and her deputies decided to take wider action -- and not just depend on a changed law to fight youth trafficking.
This spring, they launched HEAT Watch: a five-part plan to ramp up action against youth trafficking. The group is asking local citizens to participate.
HEAT Watch is partly modeled after the neighborhood watch program: If you see youth who appear to be on the street and exploited for prostitution, call the HEAT Watch 24-hour hotline: 510-208-4959.
Through HEAT Watch, local law enforcement agencies are collaborating more with agencies in other jurisdictions, "because human trafficking knows no borders," O'Malley said. Also, traffickers often move captives from state to state.
In fact, a commercial sex trade circuit exists that includes Las Vegas, Los Angeles and other places like Atlanta, Ga., New York and Hawaii.
It's important to educate law enforcement, policy makers and the general public about the true nature of the commercial sex trade -- and how youths are lured or kidnapped into it, O'Malley said. Her office is reaching out to local businesses in neighborhoods where prostitution happens, asking them to watch for exploited youths and to alert authorities, she said.
HEAT Watch offers sexually exploited youth an array of services that not only comfort them after trauma, but help them escape the bondage of pimps and street life. Alameda County is setting up a diversion program to help victims find support and help to turn their lives around after being commercially sexually exploited.
NEXT in this series: Part 6, Rescuing trafficked youth: Building a house for kids with no home...
This story was produced under a fellowship sponsored by the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism, a project of Tides Center.
We also would like to thank Robert Rosenthal and California Watch for their support -- as well as our reporters Barbara Grady and Sarah Terry-Cobo, and photographer Alison Yin -- for their amazing work.
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