Clamping down on the sex trafficking of young children E-mail
San Diego is home to one of nearly 40 task forces nationwide that are dedicated to solving cases involving the sexual exploitation of juveniles. One of those efforts, the Innocence Lost National Initiative, was developed by the FBI in 2003 through a partnership with the Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The initiative started with task forces in a few cities to take on a new combined approach to combating domestic sex trafficking of children.

In the past seven years, the Innocence Lost Initiative has been responsible for the rescue of over 1,200 children and the prosecution of over 600 pimps and associates.

The recent Operation Cross Country V, a three-day national enforcement action, netted the rescue of 69 juveniles and the arrest of 99 pimps across the United States.

San Diego's involvement in the Innocence Lost National Initiative officially began in November 2009 and funding from the FBI provides overtime and equipment for this important effort. Within the San Diego Police Department, participation on the task force is collateral duty for two Vice detectives, Chappie Hunter and Marc Jose, and a Vice sergeant, Bill Woods. In addition to their work on regular Vice responsibilities concerning strip clubs, gambling, alcohol licenses and the like, they spend about three-quarters of their time on sex trafficking cases involving children. They could easily be spending more time on the heavy caseload.

Detectives Hunter and Jose and Sergeant Woods are cross-sworn as Deputy US Marshals and are joined by other area law enforcement agents on the San Diego Innocence Lost Task Force. Currently, the task force is led by FBI Supervising Agent in Charge Alex Horan and also staffed by FBI Agents Carla Croft and Kris Robinson, Escondido Detective Ross Umstot and Oceanside Detective Jack Reed.

The Innocence Lost Task Force fields an average of two to three new cases each week - a sharp increase over the past few years.

The level of intricacy on these types of cases can be comparable to a homicide or major financial crimes case and cases can last between two months to over a year and a half.

Most of the pimps in these cases are street gang members who have found pimping to be easier and more profitable than drug dealing. They recruit their victims, usually girls and as young as 12 years old, through the internet, shopping malls and schools, often approaching victims as if they would like to date them and then forcing them into prostitution through manipulation and coercion.

Victim management takes on a huge role in many of the task force's investigations. Victims are often reticent to talk to police, either because they are threatened by a pimp or because they may believe they are in love. In most cases, the victims have had horrible home lives and suffer from severe emotional issues, making them susceptible to being lured by a pimp who presents himself as someone who will love them.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a history of emotional, sexual or other physical abuse is a major vulnerability for victims, as children with such a background can and do fall prey to this form of victimization again. Additionally, children with a history of running away or current status as a runaway makes them vulnerable to traffickers who can take advantage of their situation.

In the past year, SDPD task force members have accounted for 18 cases forwarded for prosecution to the District Attorney's Office & U.S. Attorney offices with a 99 percent success rate. There are several other cases being investigated during that same time.

Some of the notable cases recently closed include sentencing of Quincy McShan, a parolee, to 23 years in prison for pimping two girls under the age of 15. Charles Hamilton will be sentenced soon and is looking at a 30-year sentence for pimping and abusing a 16 year old girl.

The prosecution of the pimp is only half the battle for the Innocence Lost Task Force - they are also involved in the rescue and recovery of victims.

Task force members work undercover to locate victims and go after the johns using decoys. Once the victims have been found, they can receive counseling, transportation and housing assistance, education and other services through the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition (BSCC), GenerateHope, and Surviving Together, Achieving and Reaching for Success (STARS).

BSCC is an alliance of numerous agencies from both sides of the United States-Mexico border that aims to combat slavery and human trafficking through a variety of projects and services for victims, law enforcement, and the community. GenerateHope, a San Diego-based non-profit organization, offers a long-term recovery program that includes housing, job training, life-skills training, individual and group therapy, recreational activities and other support services. STARS, a San Diego Youth Services program for teenage girls involved in commercial sexual exploitation, provides support to empower them to escape sexual exploitation by developing their inner strengths, building a sense of community and supporting their reintegration into mainstream society.

Tips for new cases come in from a variety of sources - from officers, schools, nongovernmental organizations - so training others to be the eyes and ears on the lookout for potential victims has become an important part of the Innocence Lost Task Force.

Detectives on the task force spend a significant amount of time conducting training sessions to educate fellow officers, probation and parole agents, Child Welfare Services representatives and school representatives on the warnings signs for victims of child trafficking. They conduct two pimping menu classes for the San Diego Police Department and have provided training throughout Southern California as far as San Bernardino County.

Especially in the schools, some of the noticeable warning signs to look out for are new patterns of truancy, a sudden drop in grades, a change in attire and signs of physical abuse or drug addiction.

If a student has two cell phones, they may have a personal phone and a pimp phone - particularly if they are highly secretive about one.

A much older boyfriend, being picked up in high profile vehicle and secluding themselves from former friends are other warning signs. Raising awareness for potential victims of child trafficking is an effective tool for preventing their entrance into prostitution, and being trained on how to make the right call helps those victims who have already been roped into it.

The most important thing to do is to make sure that you are looking at the girls as victims rather than as suspects, because in nearly every case she's being forced into that life.

Emily Cox is the editor of The Informant, the official publication of the San Diego Police Officers Association. She offers a special thanks to Sergeant Woods, Detective Hunter and Detective Jose for the task force overview. For more information go to www.missingkids.com; and www2.fbi.gov/innolost/innolost.htm.

 


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