Before a man handed her a single dollar in exchange for sex, before she was branded like a young Angus put out to graze, before the trip across state lines and the unwanted pregnancy and the punches to her belly and the testimony she gave despite fear of retribution from a man she called “Daddy”—before all that, there was a phone call. It happened in 2009, on one of those party line services where you pay to talk with strangers. At 14 years old, Alexis* shouldn’t have been using the adults-only service. But her brothers weren’t going to snitch, and chances were her mother was too high to notice or care. As for her father, well—there wasn’t one to speak of.
Some small talk. Some flirting. A persuasive “Can I meet you?” A few hours later he rolled up to her South L.A. home in a late-model Cadillac. If Alexis looked underage, the guy didn’t express concern. He went by the name Suave, spelling it “Suawvay.” African American, like Alexis, and age 32, he drove to a club, where they had some drinks. Alexis enjoyed herself. At one point she drifted off to take in the scene, talk with other people. Suawvay didn’t like that. “Bitch, come here,” he told her, and they left. On the way home he pulled over and they had sex in the backseat, which afforded more privacy than the room he kept at his grandparents’ house.
The two were together whenever Alexis wasn’t in school. After a while she got a peek at his license and learned his age. No wonder he’d been able to pay for her nails, her hair, her clothes. Suawvay was a man. What’s more, he seemed to care. A couple of times he even gave some cash to her mom, who knew he was too old but whose concerns were offset by the contents of his wallet.
Six months passed, 2009 turned into 2010, and one boozy night Suawvay stopped on South Western Avenue, where women in tiny skirts and tinier tops strut in front of cheap motels, beckoning clients with swinging hips and pushed-up breasts. Suawvay explained how things would be from then on. “He told me what I had to do, gave me my prices,” Alexis later testified. “[He] told me how long I should be gone and when I come back to report to him.… He gave me my prices for sex. He said 80. And for head, 50.”
Alexis was one of a handful of girls in Suawvay’s stable. Sometimes he took her to other spots—South Figueroa, Long Beach Boulevard—where she rented her body to men for 10 to 15 minutes in cars and motels and alleys, then relinquished the proceeds to her boyfriend turned boss. Nice clothes, manicures, extensions—she could still have that stuff, but she would have to earn it. And earn she did. “I got used to the lifestyle of fast money, all the nails and the hair,” she said. “Everything my mother couldn’t give me, he gave me, so I thought that was the life to live.”
The sex trafficking of minors, we’ve come—or maybe want—to believe, is limited to developing nations, where wretched poverty leaves girls with few options. But too many children in Los Angeles County know that the sex trade has no borders. They can be runaways fresh off the Greyhound, immigrants from places like Southeast Asia and eastern Europe, aspiring “models” whose “managers” have them convinced that sexual favors are standard operating procedure. Uncovering the sale of children is difficult at best. While some authorities suspect that boys are sexually exploited as often as girls, nobody knows for sure. Boys are rarely pimped, which isn’t the case for girls. And what little law enforcement agencies can track usually happens on the street, at the behest of pimps, albeit in areas that society tends to ignore. In L.A. County that means poor black and Latino neighborhoods such as Watts, Lynwood, Compton, and parts of Long Beach, along with Van Nuys and Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. “This is the demographic that’s most afflicted,” Kathleen Kim, a professor at Loyola Marymount University’s law school, a member of L.A.’s police commission, and an expert on human trafficking, told me. “It’s a problem among marginalized children.” According to the district attorney’s office, 29 confirmed cases of child sex trafficking were reported in L.A. County in the first quarter of this year. That’s roughly 120 minors sold for sex annually, but, authorities agree, the statistics fall short of reality when there are so many ways to hide the crime.
As one of those statistics, Alexis came to learn that Suawvay’s affection was as hard-won as the clothes on her pubescent body. This was, after all, a partnership. If she wanted his intimacy, she had to pull her weight. No, she had to reciprocate. Suawvay had done so much for her, and his magnanimity demanded evidence of her gratitude. “Like, if I didn’t make no money, I don’t get no sex,” she told the court. “If I just be disobedient, I don’t get no sex.… And [he’d] get really upset. He’ll think I don’t love him. He’d say, ‘You didn’t bring me no money. You don’t love me. You don’t want to see us grow?’ ”
Lieutenant Andre Dawson has been a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department for 32 years. Since 2010, he’s run an eight-person vice team dedicated to slowing the commercial sexual exploitation of children, known by insiders as CSEC. The acronym is what advocacy groups and progressive members of law enforcement like Dawson prefer over “child prostitution,” a term they believe stigmatizes kids. If a minor is too young to consent to sex, goes the thinking, then she shouldn’t be punished for selling it. Until recently the girls were treated as criminals to be arrested and harshly punished. But Dawson and others in his field are coming around to a new way of thinking: They’ve begun to regard them as victims—people who need to be saved from danger. In fact, this past August Los Angeles County officials announced that they’d adopted a protocol for first responders, essentially a tutorial on how to recognize signs of sexual exploitation among minors and how to talk to the kids. A typical day for the lieutenant’s team might involve seeking intelligence from informants, trying to persuade girls to testify against guys like Suawvay, or combing Web sites like BackPage.com, where some “escorts” who advertise are the underage property of a pimp. That’s another word people in the field tend to avoid, saying “pimp” has been glorified by hip-hop and pop culture. They prefer the label “traffickers.”
Fifty-six and a year away from retirement, Dawson is six feet three inches, bald, and handsome, with a graying mustache. When I met him on a recent Friday evening, he was sharply dressed in a black Kangol cap, chunky glasses, a collarless white shirt, and dark designer jeans. In his cubicle he keeps binders documenting the lengths to which pimps go to lay claim to the children they sell. There’s a photo of a girl’s chest, the words “King Snipe’s Bitch” tattooed on it. King Snipe, or Leroy Bragg, is in prison now. Girls are stamped in dark ink with their pimp’s nickname, “Cream,” an acronym for “Cash Rules Everything Around Me.” One bears his name on her cheek. The girl was 14 and pregnant at the time she was branded. The burn mark on a different young woman’s back was from an iron applied by her pimp, Dawson said. He brought out a twist of lime-colored wires that was two feet long and as thick as three fingers, duct tape binding them together. “We call this ‘the green monster,’ ” he said. “It’s what one of these pimps used to discipline his girls. He beat one of them so bad, he pulled the skin off of her back.”
Once the sun went down, Dawson draped a Kevlar vest over my torso and drove me through “the tracks,” stretches of city streets where money is exchanged for sex. They’re also known collectively as “the blade,” owing to the risks one takes when walking them. Threading his SUV through the crush of downtown traffic, he recounted how he used to regard the kids he arrested as willing participants. They were defiant toward police, he said. Invariably the girls protected their pimps and went back to the streets. But as he talked to child advocates, he came to the realization that most of the kids lacked the emotional maturity to know they were being abused. “The chain is around the brain,” he said, passing the big airplane by the science museum at Fig and Expo. “The more I work with this population, the more I understand that 12- and 13-year-old girls don’t just call each other up and say, ‘Hey, let’s go out prostituting.’ They’re not just using bad judgment. They’re doing it because they’re desperate for love or money or both. They think they’re getting what they can’t get somewhere else.” Even more tragic, Dawson said, is that “these girls think the pimp hasn’t done anything wrong.”
While poverty, parentlessness, and crushingly low self-esteem are all factors, there’s another reason so many kids wind up in “the game,” or, as some call it, “the life”: Dawson estimates “nine-and-a-half or ten out of ten” of the girls he encounters were victims of sexual abuse that began long before they turned their first trick. I asked him how many adult prostitutes he encounters started when they were underage. “Ninety-nine percent,” he said. “It’s all they’ve known.”
Along South Figueroa, around the 50s and the 60s, the streets became dotted with grubby motels and liquor stores. Dawson rolled slowly past streetwalkers dressed in microskirts or satiny booty shorts and wobbly stilettos. Each woman craned her neck to see who was coming, then quickly turned away. Johns always roll solo; a fiftysomething black man and a fortysomething white guy could have meant police or some other form of trouble. We crossed Vernon, Slauson, and Florence to a stretch of Long Beach Boulevard that runs through Compton, where we cruised by a dozen or so women—African Americans mostly, along with a few Latinas and one white—who appeared under 30 but not conspicuously young. “There’s a strategy to how the pimps work,” Dawson said. “The pimps move them around, and they’re not necessarily out on weekends only.”
Technically, Dawson wasn’t driving through LAPD jurisdiction. Like many municipalities in the region, Compton is policed by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. But because pimps sell girls throughout the region, both agencies share information and human resources in a task force that can include the Long Beach Police Department and law enforcement in neighboring counties. Both agencies also cooperate with the local FBI, which conducts investigations into federal matters, like trafficking across state lines or large-scale busts such as the national, 106-city sweep it conducted this past June, when 38 alleged California pimps were arrested and 168 kids throughout the country were removed from the trade—at least for the time being. In September a sweep in Long Beach resulted in 20 arrests for human trafficking; 22 minors between 12 and 17 were picked up as well. Excising a pimp from a girl’s life won’t necessarily keep her from falling victim to another man, but it certainly helps to mitigate an immediate threat. There are other dangers to girls working the blade. A couple of years back a 17-year-old died after being sodomized and strangled by an alleged john, who set her body on fire. This past February a 17-year-old was stabbed to death in Yorba Linda a month after being picked up for prostitution.
“The more I work with this population, the more I understand that 12- and 13-year-old girls don’t just call each other up and say, ‘Hey, let’s go out prostituting.’”
Up ahead on the right, a young black woman dressed in short shorts and a revealing top was moving toward us on the sidewalk. “She’s been working this neighborhood for a while,” Dawson said. Flipping a U-turn, he stopped the car on the side street she was about to cross and hopped out. The woman, who took a step as if she were ready to run, eyed Dawson as he fished for the badge that was hanging on a lanyard under his shirt. When he asked if she’d be willing to talk to me about the underage girls brought to the streets, the woman told him angrily, “I already have a boyfriend.” She had no identification or purse—just a cell phone. Dawson told her to have a good evening and got back in the car. As he closed the door and put on his seat belt, the woman said, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
“Once she realized who I was,” Dawson said as we drove away, “she knew she didn’t have to run.” But without a glimpse of the badge, the woman would have bolted. Every working girl, he told me, knows not to turn a black trick. It was a generalization that, even coming from an African American man, was raw and unsettling, but several women with firsthand experience had already uttered the same thing to me. At least in neighborhoods like this, he said, a black man is potentially a pimp, and a pimp is always looking for someone to sell.
Commissioner Catherine Pratt’s courtroom is on the 12th floor of the Compton Courthouse, west of the train tracks along Willowbrook Avenue. Pratt, who grew up in Glendale, presides over the juvenile court, where she delivers sentences and supervises the rehabilitation of kids who’ve been arrested for everything from truancy to prostitution to assault. Some go to lockdown facilities and some to youth homes that serve as a last chance before juvenile jail, while others live at home or with foster families.
Twenty juvenile courts in L.A. County hear CSEC cases, but none receives as many as Compton’s. Ninety percent of the girls Pratt sees are African American, 8 percent are Hispanic, and as many as 80 percent of them have a history with the Department of Children and Family Services, whether that means bouncing between foster parents or a single interview with the agency. It’s not uncommon for girls to be recruited into the life from group homes and juvenile detention facilities by other foster kids, or “bottom bitches,” on behalf of pimps. Despite the name, to be a bottom is to enjoy some status, sharing the pimp’s bed, for example, or riding shotgun with him.
Tuesdays in Pratt’s courtroom are reserved for all of her cases involving prostitution. She also sees girls who’ve committed other offenses but have a history of being sexually exploited or who show signs of abuse when talking to officers and social workers. Formally known as STAR Court—Succeeding Through Achievement and Resilience—Pratt’s nook within the criminal justice system focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment. The first girl to see Pratt one morning this past spring was Vanessa, an African American teen who was about 16. She wanted to transfer from a large, fairly strict group home in Commerce to a smaller, more lenient residence in Pasadena. She wanted to be closer to her mother, whom she said was “in a program.” Vanessa told Pratt she was equipped to handle a less rigid living situation, but Pratt said she would first have to adhere to a months-long “transition plan” that centered on good behavior, performing well in her classes, and remaining in counseling.
“You look pretty bummed,” said Pratt, a 52-year-old with shoulder-length blond hair and a demeanor that is equal parts toughness and warmth. Vanessa mumbled that she was. Pratt noticed in the paperwork that it was the girl’s birthday. “Can I sing to you?” she asked. Vanessa stared at the floor, concealing an embarrassed smile, and shook her head. “If you ever heard my singing,” said Pratt, “you’d know that’s a good choice.”
Commissioners are essentially judges, the main difference being that they’re appointed by judges. Pratt was appointed in 2006, first presiding over a traffic court. Before that, she spent ten years as a staff lawyer with L.A. County Counsel, which represents the Board of Supervisors and other agencies. Back in 1993, while Pratt was working for a corporate law firm, her sister was shot and killed in Long Beach by her boyfriend during an argument.
Pratt says her sister’s death fuels her compassion for young women who can’t break free from their abusers. But she wasn’t always empathetic toward the girls in her court. Like Lieutenant Dawson, she viewed them as willing participants in a victimless crime. “Most of the girls would tell me they chose this,” she said, “and I’d lecture them about making bad choices because I accepted their statements at face value.” She began to view things differently in 2010, when a 12-year-old named Felicia* wound up in court for assaulting her mother, who’d already been investigated by the DCFS for abuse and neglect. As a regular in Pratt’s court, Felicia wound up running away from several foster homes after being sentenced by Pratt. “Put me in a locked facility,” Felicia told a social worker. “That’s the only place I’ll stay.” Pratt sent her to Camp Scudder, in Santa Clarita, the county’s toughest juvenile lockdown. Four months into a six-month sentence, Felicia went home on good behavior, but she fled soon after and was arrested for loitering with the intent to commit prostitution. “At this point,” said Pratt, “Felicia related to me that she had been kidnapped.” Based on the girl’s delinquency, Pratt was skeptical. Later the same day Long Beach police officers told Pratt that they’d heard Felicia was a victim of a felon named Ray Rhodes, who would abduct girls and force them into prostitution. Police believed he’d kill Felicia to prevent her from sitting on the witness stand. Felicia did testify against Rhodes, who was sentenced to 45 years in prison, but the girl hasn’t been in contact with her probation officers for the last several months.
Felicia’s story motivated Pratt to apply for a three-year, $300,000-per-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice so that she could create STAR Court. The largest share of the money goes toward advocacy workers and a public interest law firm, which handles a portion of the case management. Meeting on a designated day allows probation agents, advocates, and public defenders to gather around a jury room table and discuss the girls’ progress and needs. But Pratt uses some of the grant money for things the kids wouldn’t normally get: Target and Walmart gift cards to mark birthdays, the end of probation terms, and other milestones. The money for the cupcakes she buys comes out of her own pocket.
These days, she said, “the only time I’ll lock kids up is if they’ve committed serious offenses or have mental health problems that call for it.” Pratt almost uniformly chooses counseling and probation over the harsh punishment for prostitution charges. When girls go AWOL from their parents or guardians—they almost all do at some point—and come back without having gotten into trouble, Pratt will let it slide. The commissioner’s method seems to be working. Seventy-three percent of STAR Court girls who’ve gone off probation have not been rearrested as juveniles or adults for prostitution or a related crime. Pratt’s program, along with advocacy work by her colleagues in the public and nonprofit sectors, helped inspire Sacramento lawmakers to amend part of the welfare code so that sexually trafficked kids can more easily be brought into the child welfare system.
*Her name has been changed due to privacy and safety concerns.
Next page: The Advocate, The Pimp, and The Politician
This feature originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.