In 2009 the FBI declared the San Francisco Bay Area as a hotspot for child prostitution. Today, five years later, the region is still an epicenter for human trafficking in the state, with one county leading the nation in human trafficking prosecutions.
In Alameda county, which includes the city of Oakland, advocates say the number of commercially sexually exploited children is increasing. All while the average age of those exploited lowers.
The Oakland Unified School District has an ambitious plan to curb those numbers. School officials say they plan to implement curriculum this year that will teach seventh graders about the dangers of sexual abuse and sexual trafficking.
An estimated 100 children are sold for sex in Oakland on any given night, according to local police. But advocates who provide counseling to victims say that it’s more like several hundred kids at night.
“It is not prostitution, this is trafficking,” explained Sandra Simmons, a clinical social worker who works with the Oakland school district’s Family, School and Community Partnerships program. Her department hopes to launch the curriculum in all seventh grade classes by the end of the year.
The district chose to offer the curriculum to seventh graders because that is the average age youth enter the sex trade in the U.S.
While there are cases of young boys and girls being abducted who are then forced into prostitution, advocates and county officials say there’s a growing concern for what locals call “Romeo Pimping.”
“We have what we call ‘Romeo pimping’ where Mr. Good guy comes along and pretends to take interest in a young ladies for months, and then after so long will switch on her and convince her she needs to do certain things for him,” said Benita Hopkins, education director at Love Never Fails, a local group that created the curriculum the district plans to launch in all classes this year.
The "Romeo pimps" typically start off courting their targets, but can quickly turn threatening.
“They’ll say things like ‘I’ve done this for you, you should do this for me, you know, and if you won’t do this for me, this is what I'll do to you, to your family or your loved ones,” Hopkins said.
The District Attorney’s office in Alameda County, which Oakland is part of, found runaways are significantly more likely to be at risk for or already involved in commercial sexual exploitation. Youth in foster care or who have been on juvenile probation were also more likely to be trafficked.
But according to the review, victims range from all socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities. According to the DA, 61 percent of the victims were black, 13 percent were Latino, 8 percent white and 2 percent Asian.
The curriculum the district plans to launch would “empower youth to detect and avoid sex trafficking,” according to Love Never Fails.
The DA’s office is also participating in efforts to curb child sex trafficking by launching an ad campaign across the county.
The ads will be seen on billboards and bus shelters where many of the young victims sit waiting to be picked up by their Johns.
“Buying a teen for sex is child abuse. Turning a blind eye is neglect,” reads one billboard. “When I was in the Life I thought I was alone. Then I found help from other people like me. I got out, U can 2. Call 510-645-9388,” reads another billboard aimed at the young victims.
“Every citizen must be informed about the crisis and understand how to be a part of the solution. Every exploited child must be offered a way out that is safe and immediate,” said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy E. O’Malley in a statement.
O'Malley's office believes seasoned criminals are leaving the drug trade to for child sex trafficking because it's more lucrative and punishment is less severe for trafficking than dealing drugs.
“Every day in this city we have children who are being sold; they are being beaten, drugged, hustled, molested and raped,” O’Malley told OaklandLocal.com. “These kids are human ATM machines for traffickers.”
“The billboards and posters that are appearing throughout Oakland this week are one important step towards putting an end to this crisis.”