Jan.-Mar. 2012

VOL. XXXI NO. 1

Stopping Victimization of Vulnerable Children in California

young women in thought

Spearheading Efforts to Protect Children with Histories of Abuse and Neglect from Sexual Exploitation

By Kate Walker

The thought of a 12-year-old girl being sold to older men to perform sex acts on a nightly basis is deeply disturbing.  Even more troubling is the fact that it happens every day in cities throughout this country, including just minutes from the National Center for Youth Law’s office in Oakland, California. Human trafficking is a $32 billion a year industry, [1] and is the second most profitable criminal activity after drug trafficking.[2] The FBI estimates that 100,000 children are sold for sex each year, and has identified that three of 13 “High Intensity Prostitution” areas fall in California, namely the San Francisco,[3] Los Angeles, and San Diego metropolitan areas.[4]  The average age of entry into the commercial sex industry is between 12 and 14,[5] and an alarming number of children who are exploited have a childhood history of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.[6]

"...As many as three out of four adult prostitutes have a history with child protective services or the foster care system."

Local law enforcement estimates that approximately 100 children are being sold for sex on Oakland streets each night.[7] During 2011, Safety Net[8] reviewed 179 separate cases.[9] Of the 179 cases reviewed, 178 were girls, nearly three-quarters were African American, over half of the children were on juvenile probation, and close to one-third were dependents under the state’s child welfare system. It remains unclear what proportion of those on juvenile probation also have child welfare backgrounds, but it is likely the percentage is high. A similar study indicates that of 149 commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC) identified in San Francisco, more than half were foster care youth from group homes.[10]

Why then do so many youth who have already been identified by the state’s child welfare system as abused or neglected become victims of commercial sexual exploitation? Why is it that as many as three out of four  adult prostitutes have a history with child protective services or the foster care system? One explanation may be that a majority of current approaches to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children focus on intervention efforts for children who have already been exploited. Some agencies and organizations, however, have begun to shift their focus to prevention efforts for those children who are at-risk of exploitation—those involved with the child welfare system.

Catching Vulnerable Youth Earlier: the Need for Efforts Focused on Prevention

Until recently, commercial sexual exploitation prevention programs and approaches were limited. Most CSEC programming focused primarily on intervention efforts for youth detained in juvenile hall on prostitution or prostitution related charges.  Intervention programs provide critical resources to ensure that youth who have been victimized by exploiters and those who procure their services, can access services to eventually escape exploitative situations. Typically, however, a child is only able to access intervention services after she has suffered years of abuse and neglect at the hands of an exploiter or pimp. By developing prevention strategies, many children at-risk for exploitation will avoid these harms . By combining intervention efforts with new prevention strategies, many children will never fall victim to exploitation, and those “in the life” will be linked to services and supports necessary to find opportunity and purpose outside of exploitation.

Children At-Risk for Commercial Sexual Exploitation

Researchers and providers who work closely with CSEC have identified the most common factors that increase a child’s vulnerability to exploitation.[11]  The most important factor identified is age; research shows that vulnerability increases as age decreases, and exploiters and pimps target the youngest children because they are more easily manipulated and deceived.[12] A history of abuse—emotional, physical, or sexual—is another key factor contributing to victimization.[13]  Parental drug use can also be a risk factor associated with CSEC because some desperate parents are willing to “sell” their children to fulfill their drug habit.[14]  Children who run away are common targets for commercial sexual exploitation, in part because their home lives are often marked by physical and sexual abuse. Runaways and other vulnerable youth who find themselves on the street may be approached within 48 hours by exploiters and pimps.[15] The last major factor most common among CSEC victims is a history of child protective services (CPS) agency involvement.[16] Exploiters and pimps are known to actively seek out and locate group homes and shelters to recruit vulnerable children.[17] 


"Probation and child welfare agencies, community based organizations, and providers in California have an opportunity to lead the nation by designing and implementing effective prevention measures to ensure that children who are the most vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation—those with histories of abuse and neglect—are not further traumatized and victimized by the growing sex trafficking industry."


These factors make a strong case for focusing prevention efforts on the child welfare population as a means of reducing the number of children who are commercially sexually exploited because the risk factors associated with CSEC are also key factors that prompt child welfare agency intervention. . Initiating protocols to screen, assess, and educate at-risk children known to child welfare systems would offer safeguards against exploitation in the future.

Probation and child welfare agencies, CBOs, and providers in California have an opportunity to lead the nation by designing and implementing effective prevention measures to ensure that children who are the most vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation—those with histories of abuse and neglect—are not further traumatized and victimized by the growing sex trafficking industry. By developing a comprehensive, statewide approach that includes prevention and intervention strategies, policy makers could ensure that children at-risk for exploitation throughout the state are afforded safeguards and protections from commercial sexual exploitation. The statewide approach should build on prevention practices that have been implemented throughout the country.

Several existing prevention efforts have shown promise, including the efforts of one local organization, MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting & Serving Sexually Exploited Youth).  These efforts as well as additional innovative approaches could be combined to establish a model whereby those at-risk for exploitation are educated, protected, and provided with services to ensure they never fall victim to exploitation.

A Promising Approach to Prevention of Sexual Exploitation in Oakland, California

MISSSEY, an organization located in Oakland, California is devoted to working with and addressing the complex needs of girls who have been commercially sexually exploited. Since its inception in 2007, MISSSEY has served hundreds of victims of sexual exploitation through a variety of different programs including case management, the Safe Place Alternative drop-in center, and resource specialists for transition age youth.[18]  MISSSEY recently received a $500,000 grant from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to provide mentoring services to children who have been exploited and those who are at-risk for exploitation.[19]

As part of the OJJDP grant, MISSSEY, along with its partners Girls Inc., Project Re-Connect, The Mentoring Center, and the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center, is in the process of launching the new Lasting Links Mentorship Program (LLMP),[20] which is modeled after The Mentoring Center’s approach of transformative mentoring.  This approach restructures negative thought patterns that serve as barriers to a healthier lifestyle through intensive mentorship and open, engaged dialogue.[21] The program is currently in the development phase, but the organization hopes to begin mentor recruitment by the end of March 2012, with its first Lasting Links Mentorship information session on March 21st. Soon after the recruitment phase is complete, they will train the mentors and identify and match them with participating girls.  MISSSEY and its partners will screen children for risk factors associated with commercial sexual exploitation to determine eligibility for LLMP. They anticipate receiving referrals from schools, health clinics, social workers, and from within the partnering organizations. The LLMP has a maximum caseload of 24 children, each matched with one mentor.

“Through the Lasting Links Program, MISSSEY will be expanding our services to the at-risk population for the first time,” said Tashina Manyak, Program Coordinator at MISSSEY.[22] “This is a critical and necessary step toward preventing the commercial sexual exploitation of children.”

Manyak said that, currently, the primary gateway to services for victims of CSEC is arrest. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, including that by the time youth come into contact with law enforcement, they’ve usually already endured years of abuse.

“We must recognize prevention efforts as equally important as intervention efforts in order to stop exploitation and abuse before they begin,” Manyak said.

In addition to the forthcoming mentoring program, MISSSEY contracted with Alameda County Department of Children and Family Services (ACDCFS) to employ two advocates at the Alameda County Assessment Center (ACAC).[23]  The ACAC is the facility where all children, with some limited exceptions, are taken when they are removed from their home due to abuse or neglect, and are held for up to 23 hours before they are placed in a more permanent setting. The MISSSEY advocates are on site each day to educate all children over the age of 11—as a means of prevention—on the warning signs of sexual exploitation, healthy relationships, self-esteem, and sexual health. In addition to this education effort, MISSSEY advocates frequently engage with older children who may have already been exploited, and need more intense intervention. Nicole Garay, a Program Manager at Alameda County Social Services, has seen the benefits of having MISSSEY advocates present at the ACAC.

“Not only are at-risk children becoming educated about commercial sexual exploitation and ways to avoid it and protect themselves,” Garay said. “The ACAC staff is now keenly aware of the problem and is working vigilantly to protect child welfare-involved kids from falling victim to this horrific problem.”

The MISSSEY advocates also train placement workers and other staff on the basics of CSEC, and are available for technical assistance, Garay said.

An Evidence-Based Prevention Curriculum

Another prevention method that appears promising is My Life My Choice (MLMC), a 10-week, prevention-driven curriculum for young women who are commercially sexually exploited or at-risk for such exploitation.[24]  The curriculum is designed to empower young women, educate them on sexual exploitation, increase their understanding of sexual health, and facilitate peer camaraderie through “prevention groups.” Early on, the creator of MLMC recognized the need for a preventive approach for children involved with the child welfare system, noting “that of the first 40 girls [MLMC] worked with who were living in group home[s] within the foster care system, 38 had been approached by a pimp for recruitment.”[25] MLMC is administered in a wide variety of settings including group homes, residential treatment centers, juvenile justice facilities, and middle and high schools.  MLMC provides trainings on the administration of the curriculum to CBOs and agencies. Since MLMC’s inception in 2002, it has provided prevention services to over 1,000 girls, and trained close to 5,000 providers throughout the country.[26] MLMC also has a mentoring program that pairs survivor mentors with girls who have already been exploited. Agencies and providers in at least seven states, including California, now use the MLMC curriculum.[27]

A Promising Approach to Prevention of Sexual Exploitation in Connecticut

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) in Connecticut has adopted several practices and protocols aimed at educating youth who are at risk of exploitation, and identifying and treating those who are exploited. Connecticut DCF has committed itself to educating children and young adults about commercial sexual exploitation through the MLMC curriculum.[28]  Providers use the MLMC curriculum, best suited for settings where the provider has access to the children for longer periods of time, in congregate care settings, middle and high schools, and juvenile detention facilities.

“Because the age of children commercially sexually exploited continues to drop, we need to develop creative ways to reach younger children, runaways, and those truant from school so that we can prevent exploitation,” said Tammy Sneed, Director of Girls’ Services for Connecticut DCF.[29]

In addition to using MLMC, Connecticut DCF and other organizations use “Tell Your Friends”, an interactive 4-week curriculum that introduces the concepts of healthy relationships, victimization and commercial sexual exploitation for children in shorter-stay settings, schools, and afterschool and community programs in Connecticut.[30]


"The time is now for California to develop and institutionalize a comprehensive model to eliminate the commercial sexual exploitation of children."


Connecticut DCF also educates individuals who have contact with children who have been exploited or are at-risk for exploitation. Both Love 146 and Connecticut DCF train foster parents, first responders such as emergency medical services (EMS) personnel and law enforcement, community groups, and school and congregate care nursing staff to recognize the signs of sexual exploitation, how to talk to children about the subject, and questions to ask.  By educating these individuals about the issue, DCF has found that they are notified more frequently and accurately about possible exploitative situations.  Furthermore, since the passage of recent legislation,[31] law enforcement is now required to notify DCF when a youth is arrested for prostitution, which allows DCF to find safe, non-exploitative placements to facilitate an escape from further victimization and exploitation.

In addition to educational outreach, Connecticut DCF requires that each child who is processed through the child welfare system be screened for sexual exploitation.[32] DCF is in the process of developing an assessment tool that will be integrated into the standard screening procedure as a way to identify victims. The tool will be administered by a nurse or a psychologist, and is designed to engage the youth in conversation about the issue of sexual exploitation. Once a child is identified as a victim, DCF will work swiftly to find an appropriate placement, working to ensure the child’s needs are provided for in that setting. DCF is currently requesting proposals for specialized foster care placements for victims of commercial sexual exploitation.  

DCF is also beginning to coordinate data systems to better track the prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation in Connecticut’s child welfare system.

Moving Forward: California Needs a Statewide Approach to Prevention

The time is now for California to develop and institutionalize a comprehensive model to eliminate the commercial sexual exploitation of children.  The approaches reviewed above describe important models for prevention efforts that could be used across the state. The prevention efforts cannot, however, stand alone and must continue to be coupled with robust intervention efforts for those youths who have already been exploited.  A comprehensive model would 1) identify children in the child welfare system who are at-risk for commercial sexual exploitation through screens or assessments, 2) implement prevention measures to ensure those at-risk do not fall prey to exploiters and pimps, 3) wrap comprehensive, community-based services around those children who have been commercially sexually exploited, and 4) institutionalize a data collection system to monitor the state’s progress toward reducing the number of children who are commercially sexually exploited.


Kate Walker is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at NCYL, sponsored by Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP Foundation. She is working on reducing the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Kate graduated from the University of Iowa College of Law in 2011, where she served on the boards of the Journal of Gender, Race & Justice and Iowa’s Equal Justice Foundation.  


[1] Polaris Project, International Trafficking, www.polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/international-trafficking (last visited Feb. 23, 2012). 

[2] Jeremy Haken, Global Financial Integrity – ‘Transnational Crime in the Developing World,’ InSight, Feb. 8, 2011, available at http://insightcrime.org/investigations...

[3] The San Francisco metro, also known as the Bay Area, includes Alameda County, which encompasses Oakland, a city with a high concentration of commercial sexual exploitation.

[4] Off. of Inspector Gen., Audit Rep. 09-08, Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Efforts to Combat Crimes Against Children, Ch. 4. Non-Cyber Sexual Exploitation of Children (2009) available at www.justice.gov/oig/reports/FBI/a0908/chapter4.htm.

[5] Richard J. Estes & Neil Alan Weiner, Univ. of Pa., The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children In the U.S., Canada and Mexico 92 (rev. Feb. 20, 2002), available at www.sp2.upenn.edu/restes/CSEC_Files/Complete_CSEC_020220.pdf.

[6] Linda a. Smith et al., Shared Hope Int’l, The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children 9 (2009) [hereinafter National Report], available at  http://www.sharedhope.org/Portals/0/Documents/SHI_National_Report_on_DMST_2009.pdf

[7] Barbara Grady, Youth Trafficking in Oakland: Big Business Despite Government, Police Efforts (Series Part 1), Oakland Local, May 5, 2010, available at oaklandlocal.com/article/youth-trafficking-part-1

[8] Safety Net is a multi-disciplinary team in Alameda County, California that plans for the safety of children who have been commercially sexually exploited and those who are at-risk for exploitation.

[9] JPG Consultants and Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, Alameda County Safety Net Statistics on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, Presented Feb. 2, 2012.

[10] Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting & Serving Sexually Exploited Youth (hereinafter MISSSEY), Framing the Issue of the commercial sexual exploitation of children, June 2009, available at www.misssey.org/documents/framing_the_issue.pdf

[11] See National Report supra note 6 at 31-35.

[12] Id. at 31.

[13] Id. at 32 (noting that the Letot Center in Dallas, Texas, which assists CSEC, found that nearly 100 percent of victims have a history of physical and sexual abuse).

[14] Id. at 32-33.

[15] Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), Know the Facts: Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, Connections: A Biannual Publication of Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, Vol. XIII Summer 2011, at 2 available at http://www.wcsap.org...

[16] National Report, supra note 6 at 35.

[17] Id. (finding that, “of the first 40 girls they worked with who were living in group home[s] within the foster care system, 38 had been approached by a pimp for recruitment”).

[18] MISSSEY, MISSSEY Services, www.misssey.org/services.html (last visited Mar. 3, 2012).

[19] Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Programs, OJJDP FY 2011 Mentoring for Child Victims of Commercial Sexual Exploitation Initiative, www.ojp.usdoj.gov/pfig (last visited Feb. 27, 2012).

[20] Telephone Interview with Tashina Manyak, Program Coordinator, MISSSEY, Inc. (Feb. 6, 2012).

[21] Telephone Interview with Tashina Manyak, Program Coordinator, MISSSEY, Inc. (Mar. 5, 2012).

[22] Telephone interview with Tashina Manyak, Program Coordinator at MISSSEY, Inc. (Mar.5, 2012).

[23] Interview with Nicole Garay, Program Manager, Placement Services, Alameda County Social Services, Department of Children & Family Services (Feb. 9, 2012).

[24] Telephone Interview with Lisa Goldblatt Grace, Co-Founder & Director, My Life My Choice (Jan. 19, 2012).

[25] National Report, supra note 6 at 35.

[26] Justice Resource Institute, My Life My Choice, About the My Life My Choice Project, www.jri.org/mylife/ (last visited Feb. 27, 2012).

[27] Justice Resource Institute, My Life My Choice, MLMC Curriculum, www.jri.org/mylife/ (last visited Feb. 28, 2012).

[28] Telephone Interview with Tammy Sneed, Director of Girls’ Services, Conn. Dep’t. of Children & Families (Feb. 6, 2012).

[29] Telephone interview with Tammy Sneed, Director of Girls’ Services, Conn. Dep’t of Children & Families (Mar. 6, 2012).

[30] Id.

[31] 2011 Conn. Acts 11-180: An Act Concerning Notification by the Department of Children and Families when a Youth is Arrested for Prostitution and Out-of-State Placements of Children and Youth 

[32] Telephone interview with Tammy Sneed, Director of Girls’ Services, Conn. Dep’t of Children & Families (Feb. 6, 2012).


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