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Congresswoman Karen Bass

Representing the 37th District of California

Los Angeles Wave: Saving our children must be our top priority

May 15, 2014

Los Angeles County’s Blue Ribbon Commission recently declared a state of emergency for children in our county. If there’s a state of emergency for all vulnerable children, the crisis surely is monumental for black youngsters.

The sex trafficking of underage girls is a tragic manifestation of this crisis. More than 90 percent of the underage girls who are forced into the sex trade in L.A. County are African-American, statistics show, and most girls who are victims of sex trafficking nationally have had a history in the foster care system.


Instead of protecting these girls and finding them the right social services to get off the streets, our society continues to arrest them. These girls never should be charged with a crime since many are minors and cannot legally consent to sex. They are not criminals; they are rape victims.

For the black community, reforming the child welfare system is simply a matter of life or death. The untold story is that many of these girls are recruited when they are in middle school when they are only 12 years old. Less than seven years later, many are dead. In Los Angeles, gangs are moving into the trafficking business where a single girl can bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

We see girls sold like commodities on Western Avenue and Century Boulevard. But they did not start here. They were abused in their homes, removed from their homes by the Department of Children and Family Services, and frequently physically and sexually abused or neglected by the foster care system. Many of these girls run away from their placement, and then authorities write them off, letting them become just another statistic.

Earlier this year Time magazine named Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew as one of its “100 Most Influential People.” Last year, I listened to T as she testified before a congressional committee about her own experience being trafficked in the foster care system, where she was neglected and abused and ultimately forced into sex trafficking.

Her tragic story, unfortunately, is hauntingly familiar.

To help curtail the problem, the Blue Ribbon Commission is calling for a transformation of Los Angeles’ child welfare system (where black children are nearly four times more likely to be connected). The commission developed a list of recommendations that, if implemented, would help prevent children like T from falling through cracks in the system — leading to her running away and being captured by a pimp who treats her like property.

The commission also proposes the county establish an Office of Child Protection that would centralize information about resources available to vulnerable children — requiring the multiple departments responsible for child safety and care to cooperate more.

Most of Los Angeles County’s 30,000 foster children are placed with relatives. For most of these children, finding a home with a relative provides a link to other family members, and frequently is less traumatic, safer and more stable. For years, however, relatives caring for foster children have reported feeling disrespected and neglected by the foster care system.

Increased community involvement will address some of the tensions between the Department of Child and Family Services and community members.

Evidence-based prevention practices have had a successful history in Los Angeles and helped reduce the number of kids in foster care. However, no one should expect prevention programs to perform miracles. Like any other program critique, training, course correction and evaluation are essential.

Kudos to Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and the Board of Supervisors and members of the commission for their hard work, including Dr. David Sanders and Dr. Cheryl Grills.

In order to change the conditions that lead to child abuse and neglect, however, community leaders and activists must keep the pressure on government officials to make it so.

This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Wave.