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City Heights Class Cautions Girls About Falling Prey To Sex Trafficking

Evening Edition

Aired 5/31/12 on KPBS News.

Teen girls with a history of trouble and low self-esteem often fall prey to sex traffickers. A youth organization in City Heights is working to prevent girls from becoming victims.

It’s graduation day for these 30 girls in City Heights. The teens have spent the past six weeks learning to make better choices after being arrested for curfew violations.

"I was actually at a party and everyone got kicked out of the house, and while we were waiting for my ride, an officer pulled out of the alley and stopped us,” recalls 14-year-old Skylar Dunbar.

“There was a fight in the street, and then all of these police came and they got me and my friend,” explains 15-year-old Jordan Coles.

“I was actually arrested for drinking, so I ended up here," says Jessica Tabor, 17.

"Here" is Star/Pal, located near Colina Park in City Heights. It’s a non-profit organization run by San Diego police and probation officers. Their diversion program, GirlE gives at-risk girls an alternative to facing a judge. Officers teach the girls how to stay safe by making positive life choices, including setting college and career goals, having healthy relationships, and building their self-esteem.

“A lot of girls who come into the program have really low self esteem and our goal is, by the time they leave our program, is to have their self esteem up high and to set goals for their lives,” explained San Diego Police Officer and GirlE leader, Denise Mills.

Mills said a path of trouble and low self image often lead girls into dangerous situations, like being coerced into the growing sex trafficking industry. She said vulnerable girls are a pimp’s prime target and greatest monetary asset.

“A lot of the girls don’t think it could happen to them and we tell them how it’s so popular in the schools, how it’s everywhere and it could be your friend or a boyfriend that possibly might decide to convince you to be sold into human trafficking,” said Mills.

Identifying A Victim Of Sex Trafficking

  • Has unexplained absences from school for a period of time
  • Chronically runs away from home
  • Makes references to frequent travel to other cities
  • Exhibits bruises or other physical trauma, withdrawn behavior, depression, or fear
  • Lacks control over her or his schedule or identification documents
  • Is hungry-malnourished or inappropriately dressed (based on weather conditions or surroundings)
  • Shows signs of drug addiction

Source: U.S. Department of Education/Office of Safe & Drug-Free Schools

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Coles, a sophomore at James Madison High School, said that’s just what happened to her.

“At my school there’s like boys who try to like pimp girls or whatever and tell them to ho-up for them, and I used to talk to this boy and he used to try to make me, and I was like, 'no.'”

San Diego Police Sergeant Patty Clayton said education is power when it comes to preventing girls from becoming victims.

“I think by educating the girls on the approach of the finessing that goes behind it and the recruitment procedures helps educate them on what to look out for and how to keep themselves safe,” said Clayton.

Several of the girls admitted they were unaware of the dangers of sex trafficking until they learned about it in the class. Dunbar said she’ll do more to protect herself from becoming a victim.

“I’ve learned a lot about self image and like feeling better about yourself before you can like love someone else or have feelings for someone else and a lot about substance abuse and keeping your body safe and your self safe," said Dunbar.

Kaela Upell, 15, said she learned traffickers don't discriminate. "Black, white, Asian, Hispanic . . any age -- they’ll take you. They don’t care. It’s for their benefit not yours."

The FBI ranked San Diego one of the top child prostitution areas in the nation. The average entry age of girls forced into prostitution is 12-14 years old. Police say it’s one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the region.

That’s why a growing number of San Diego advocates, educators and law enforcement are stepping up efforts to raise awareness and combat the problem.

San Diego Police Vice Detective Mark Jose recently spoke to a group of 200 community members at a sex trafficking forum at the San Diego County Office of Education.

“They’re all tatted out, and they look like they’re from a gang," described Jose. "How they get three or four girls to go out there who have never done this before -- to go out in the street and do the things that they’re doing, and give all their money to them."

He said pimps are masters of seduction.

“They’ll start building her esteem up saying how beautiful she is, how wonderful she is. They’ll start to date her, start buying her things, maybe little trinkets, clothes, get her nails done. And then they have sex with her. And it’s usually at that turning point that they say, ‘Okay, I’ve got her.’”

Jose said sex trafficking plays out hundreds of times every night in San Diego, and the recruiting happens in schools, malls, the beach and low-income neighborhoods, like City Heights.

Report Human Trafficking

San Diego Trafficking Emergency Hotline: (619) 666-2757

National Trafficking Emergency Hotline: (888) 3737-888

“I think it’s more prevalent in those refugee and immigrant communities that the girls are prey because they don’t understand the society, they haven’t been here that long, they are very often times poor and they are typical teenagers,” said Zara Marselian, CEO of La Maestra Community Health Centers in City Heights.

"The girls fall prey because they’re too trusting and don’t understand the dangers until it’s too late," she said. “And the other point is that our refugees and immigrants oftentimes are hesitant to call law enforcement, because in their own countries, the police is not your friend."

Star/Pal is working to change that with its team of dedicated officers who coordinate daily programs and special events for underserved youth. The goal is to empower the kids with education and opportunities, and in turn, build safer communities for the future.

Officer Mills tells the girls in GirlE they can call her 24/7.

“I want to bring them all home. They’re like family to me at that point, so it’s hard but we keep in contact with the majority of the girls. I just want them to know their self-worth. They are somebody and that we love them.”

Cynthia Pillado, 14, said what started as the worst night of her life turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to her.

"I want to get out of trouble, for sure," she said. "I do want to get out of trouble because I do want to have good grades and I do want to get to college."

Video by Nicholas McVicker

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