|Pastor Paula Daniels at the Well, a drop-in center where she counsels underage prostitutes in Lynwood. Daniels divides her time between L.A., Orange and San Bernardino counties. (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles Times)|
Los Angeles Times
It was just after 3 p.m. in San Bernardino, 99 hellish degrees and counting, as two working girls walked along Baseline Street. They appeared to be somewhere between 16 and 19, about the same as the other females working the track in a city boxed in by freeways that deliver an endless convoy of johns.
"Can you imagine that they're put out here in this heat?" asked Pastor Paula Daniels.
Pastor Paula's mission is to rescue girls and young women from the clutches of human traffickers.
She and her posse from Forgotten Children, which runs Rachel's House of Healing in San Bernardino, take to the streets to let the prostitutes know there's a way out.
But breaking free isn't easy. The prostitutes are generally controlled by pimps, and the business is often a gang enterprise, Pastor Paula said. A San Bernardino vice officer I spoke to ran out of breath ticking off the long list of implements — from pliers to curling irons — prostitutes have been tortured with by pimps to keep them in line or to punish them for trying to run.
This is big money, said Pastor Paula, with social media making it easier for johns to find what they're looking for. And the gangs long ago discovered a basic principle regarding illicit trades.
"You can sell a dime bag of drugs only once, but you can sell a 14-year-old girl 10 or 15 times a night."
Prostitution and organized trafficking are as old as time, but lately public officials are looking at prostitutes — especially minors — as victims rather than perpetrators. Orange County officials have just announced a doubling of arrests for trafficking in the last two years, and Los Angeles County officials have rolled out social service strategies to steer girls out of the business.
San Bernardino County, meanwhile, has launched a strategy of all-out war on the trade.
"It's faith-based, it's county departments, it's mental health, education," said Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos. "We came up with … the Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation … to help girls get through and transition out. When these girls were being let out of juvenile hall, guess who was picking them up. It was the human traffickers. The pimps. So we had to fix this."
The county offered diversion services to 77 under-age girls in 2013, and the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit has sent 17 predators to state prison, with 28 more cases pending trial, according to the district attorney's office.
Chris Lee, the D.A.'s public affairs officer, produced a documentary called "Teenage $ex 4 $ale." Nominated for a regional Emmy, it's used as a training film for officers and prosecutors. And Ramos has posted the photos of 30 convicted johns on the D.A. website, with 156 defendants awaiting trials that could land their mugs in the gallery as well.
But Ramos said a key piece of the strategy involves the spiritual rehabilitation of girls who are often on the run from abusive families when they're scooped up by traffickers who methodically groom them and ultimately enslave them.
"We can't do this without the Pastor Paulas of the world," Ramos says. "We need that help on the spiritual side, because it helps replace all of the horrendous, horrible situations some of the girls have been through."
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