New documentary shows stark reality into the lives of parents and children caught in the sex trafficking trade and Lemon Grove is stepping up in a grassroots awareness campaign
Much can be said about exploiting innocence. Taking advantage of tenderness, inexperience and vulnerability is indefensible. And human trafficking experts had plenty to say, appearing in, and afterward discussing, the documentary film “Indoctrinated: The Grooming of Our Children into Prostitution.” The film, which detailed commercial sexual exploitation of youth in San Diego County, was screened at the Lemon Grove Academy on Jan. 29, before a mixed-age audience of about 150 viewers.
Lemon Grove Academy Principal Richard Oser welcomed the crowd solemnly, introducing the film by noting how hard this topic is to confront, and how troubled he is both as both a parent and a principal over what ought to be childhood’s time of “innocence and joy” being lost through “dangers that are present” in the community. Oser said that the antidote is building grassroots awareness among responsible residents, who “need to be educated” about the scope of this crime locally around East County.
Jim Ellis, producer of the film, lives in Lemon Grove. His is the first documentary addressing both parents and teens about this difficult subject. The screening was the first local event to include adults and juveniles together as viewers.
“The harsh reality is that the situation is becoming worse and worse,” Ellis said. “But the greatest weapon we can ever wield against child sex trafficking is awareness.”
Lemon Grove Councilmember Racquel Vasquez told those gathered that understanding the extent of this criminal activity is “absolutely necessary,” and that increased knowledge about human sex trafficking offers parents and guardians the “tips and tools to know what to do” to protect East County children from criminal exploitation.
Gangs are now involved in the business of child sex trafficking. Unlike one-time-and-done drug or illicit weapons deals, a 12-year-old child prostitute can be “sold” for sex over and over and over again for years. In San Diego County alone, this “modern-day slavery” sex trade rakes in around $97 million annually. Each year, 100,000 children fall victim to it, and 300,000 are at risk. Most vulnerable are runaway teens, reportedly totaling about 2,500 around San Diego on any night. The typical runaway is propositioned to become a sex worker within 48 hours of moving onto the streets.
A pair of San Diego County Sheriff’s Department detectives appeared as two of four expert panelists after the video ended. (Detectives “Joe” and “Alex” participate in undercover operations and requested to be identified only by these first names.) Detective Joe imparted the stunning companion statistic that FBI research ranks San Diego eighth worst among metropolitan U.S. regions for child prostitution, with more criminal sexual misuse of under-age victims than even notorious Las Vegas. He has investigated various crimes during a long career in law enforcement.
“This is the worst type of victimization I have seen,” he said of sex trafficking. He has been involved with 261 of these cases over the past five years, with over 400 suspects arrested. He assesses these as “very difficult cases to work,” some taking up to two years to conclude.
Alex works the communities of Spring Valley and Lemon Grove for sex traffickers. He has rescued 100 girls and put away 22 pimps.
Joe described how “the mindset has changed” in law enforcement. Prostitutes used to be arrested, ticketed for the offense, and then released to go back to prostitution. Now, the prostitutes are seen as long-term victims instead of willing participants in law breaking.
Deputy District Attorney Mary-Ellen Barrett, another panelist, prosecutes human sex traffickers. She said the cases are difficult, because the victimized girls nonetheless mistrust police and prosecutors. And the criminal traffickers find these to be low-risk, high-reward crimes.
Children’s vulnerability has always made them easy targets for predatory criminals seeking new fodder for criminal activity syndicates. According to the documentary, though, culture and entertainment messages have caused today’s youth to be more susceptible than earlier generations of children to be caught up in “the life,” as the cycle of prostitution, violence and drug use is known. For instance, music and movies have mainstreamed “hooking” and “pimping,” treating the degradation and dehumanization of other humans for paid sexual contact as enticingly glamorous and appealing.
Moreover, today’s difficult economic circumstances have multiply negative effects. Working parents are absent many hours, and then are exhausted and distracted once at home. Meanwhile, the children they are trying to provide for are likely to be influenced by materialistic consumerism to long for more expensive possessions than their parents can give.
Manipulators are attuned to the signs to look for, as they prowl around schools, malls and beaches, seeking children who exhibit low self-esteem. Pimps lure these youngsters with the affection, love and attention they crave, with added promises of safety, security and extravagant luxuries.
“Darryl,” a former pimp interviewed in the film, admitted that the business is inhumane. “It’s just about the money, about the game … about control.” Gangster pimps keep the prostitutes dependent, isolated from family and friends. The prostitutes are often moved throughout the U.S., to prevent them from accessing community services that would help them leave “the life.”
Force, coercion and violence are used to ensnare the child prostitutes. Each young woman who was interviewed in the film, as a survivor of sex trafficking, said that she often feared for her life and believed that she would soon wind up dead.
A child prostitute tends to earn about $2,000 per night. Brian Beck, the fourth expert panelist, also appeared in the film. He spoke of his daughter’s three years “hooking” that to him “felt like hell,” not knowing whether she was still alive. Once she had been taught how to schedule paid sexual encounters by cellphone, she began raking in $3,000 - 5,000 nightly. Academic researchers have extrapolated that in San Diego about 8,000 online communications each day arrange for prostitution sessions.
The personal havoc for the survivors includes sexually transmitted diseases, drug and alcohol addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. Beck reports that his daughter has survived but become “very different, she cries a lot and gets angry easily.” Her three young brothers are also still angry and upset over her experiences. Beck said, “As a dad, you have no guarantees.”
For communities, the prostitution-network gangs bring more violence, other crimes besides sex trafficking, more weapons likely to be misused in criminal acts, and increased risks to neighbors.
The first advice from the experts is to make no assumptions. Children as young as 10 can be recruited, and boys can be too, although less frequently than girls. Pimps can be school acquaintances, 15-, 16-, 17-year-old youths themselves. A child from any community, of any race, ethnic background or family finances can be taken in.
The detectives advised parents, “Don’t give up your parental rights” to make good decisions on a child’s behalf. They counseled that parents should talk to their kids, monitor their social media and other online communications, and know the child’s friends. Watch for telltale changes in the child’s demeanor and behavior, they said. A child who inexplicably sports expensive new possessions may have gotten the items through the sex trafficking trade. Ask about and investigate any older male who befriends the child, especially if the relationship seems secretive or the man creates an “us versus them” barrier thwarting parental involvement.
January has been declared human trafficking awareness month. More information and aid for trafficking victims can be obtained by calling the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s toll-free hotline at (888) 373-7888. If anyone is in immediate danger, the first call should be to 911.
“Indoctrinated” was made by Legacy Productions, in conjunction with assistance from the ACTION Network and the San Diego County Education Department. Film producer Ellis said his next project in the series will focus on the demand side of commercial sex transactions, interviewing former “Johns” who have recognized the wrongfulness of their exploitation of children for adult sexual gratification. Community organizations collaborating to stage the free public educational film screening included Thrive Lemon Grove, Soroptimist International of Lemon Grove, Lemon Grove School District, San Diego County Library, United Nations Association of San Diego, Union Bank, CSA San Diego County, and the Institute for Public Strategies. The Lemon Grove Academy is located at 7866 Lincoln Street.