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This November, California voters will decide on a ballot initiative that would strengthen penalties for those involved in the sex trafficking of women and children. The CASE Act, or Californians Against Sexual Exploitation, would make those cases easier to prosecute. If it passes, those convicted of the crime would also have to register as sex offenders, something they're not currently required to do.
Gloria Hillard recently spent some time with police on the streets of Los Angeles, a major hub for child sex trafficking.
GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: The fliers fanned out on LAPD Lieutenant Andre Dawson's desk tell only part of the story.
ANDRE DAWSON: All of these girls are listed as missing juveniles.
HILLARD: Most are school photos, awkward, smiling, innocent. These are the before photos. He also has a few of the after ones.
DAWSON: They made up the eyes. She's got makeup and, you know, she's got lipstick.
HILLARD: Dawson is the officer in charge of the Los Angeles Police Department Human Trafficking Unit. The average age of victims is 13, he says. He turns to his computer and pulls up the website, Backpage.com.
DAWSON: It says, stunning, beautiful, so sexy, no disappointments, and it shows the age of being 22. but when you look at the pictures, you can tell that this picture is not of a 22-year-old girl.
HILLARD: On the internet or the street, it's the same story.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)
KRISTEN HUMPHRIES: There's a young looking one walking southbound from 92nd, blue shirt over jean shorts.
AARON KORTH: I'm going to come out.
KORTH: I'll do a U and then we'll just pull up.
HUMPHRIES: Roger. Going to make a U-turn.
HILLARD: There could be a hundred different reasons of how and why a girl ends up trafficked by a pimp and, chances are, undercover officers, Kristen Humphries and Aaron Korth, have heard every single one.
HUMPHRIES: We just interviewed a girl that had a $800-a-day quota and that's every day.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Unintelligible) at that location.
HUMPHRIES: They don't get a break. They don't get much time to sleep. They don't even get much to eat, really.
HILLARD: Arresting a pimp isn't easy and don't even get them started about the customers, the johns.
KORTH: That's not our same guy from the other night, is it?
HUMPHRIES: You know, it's just a misdemeanor for the johns. And, personally, I think there needs to be much heavier penalties for the people who are the demand side of this supply and demand equation here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I tried to leave him, but he told me that he would kill me.
HILLARD: This former prostitute is just 14 years old. Because she's so young, we're withholding her name.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He would post me on the Internet and he would put a fake name and everything and the number where to call me at. And so, I would just tell them what hotel to come to and the room number.
HILLARD: She says some of the men who came to that Santa Barbara hotel would ask her age.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I told them that I was 19.
HILLARD: You don't look 19.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No.
HILLARD: Today, she is a resident of Children of the Night, a private group home for children involved in prostitution. Here, she has been given a second chance.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I wasn't the person who I really am and I didn't get a chance to have the teenage experiences.
LOIS LEE: I tell my kids, I can't make that go away. All I can do is put distance between it.
HILLARD: Lois Lee is the group home's founder.
LEE: You're going to find, over time, if you continue to do your schoolwork and you continue to grow and thrive, that you're going to forget whether that happened on a Saturday or a Sunday.
HILLARD: Not all of the kids pulled from the streets of Los Angeles County are as lucky to make it to a place as Children of the Night. This is one of the girls' units at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, a regular stop for Hania Cardenas and Michelle Guymon of the Los Angeles County Probation Department.
MICHELLE GUYMON: She's (unintelligible) Central? OK. So she is, central. OK, got you.
HILLARD: They have just learned that the girl they came to see was sent to another juvenile facility. Down a long hallway, neat rows of shoes are lined up on shiny linoleum. Hania Cardenas says they are working hard to change the perception of the girls as victims rather than criminals.
HANIA CARDENAS: But we still have to bring them here, unfortunately, because there's nothing in the community that would keep them safe.
HILLARD: The girl they came to see? She had just been released from the hospital. She was hit by a car.
GUYMON: And they think it was the trafficker because she wanted to leave and she had a fractured - her facial structural was fractured, two black eyes. They had to resuscitate her twice. She's got a broken leg in three places.
CARDENAS: I mean, the worst things you can imagine happen to these girls. I mean, continuous rapes and beatings and branding.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE RADIO)
HILLARD: Back on Figueroa Street, undercover officers Korth and Humphries are juggling a full caseload.
HUMPHRIES: We come away thinking to ourselves, good Lord, you know, we've seen it all. And then the next case is kind of the same thing where you just never - you never hear it all.
HILLARD: It's a scene that is played out 24/7 on this street with low-slung stucco motels and girls with long forgotten dreams. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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