"It's increasing, and not only is it increasing, the young ladies are getting more savvy. Because some of them that went in at 14, now they're 16, or 17, and they're actually recruiting 12 or 13 year olds. So they're getting a little bit more savvy because a mass number of young people have been involved in it now for the past several years, and there's organizations like CAL-PEP [California Prostitutes Education Project], who have been doing work with prostitutes for thirty years, and they're even blown away by the number of young girls involved in prostitution."
Last month, I had an opportunity to interview Nola, who is the Director of the Parenting and Youth Enrichment Department, and the Coordinator of the Sexually Abused and Commercially Exploited Youth Program at the Scotlan Youth and Family Center. When I asked her why teenage prostitution is so prevalent in Oakland, she said,
"Because they can do it here. . . Pimps identify this as a good place to pimp underage girls. Underage girls identify this as a place to prostitute where they most likely won't get caught, or if they do get caught, consequences won't be a big deal, and men who like to buy sex, men or women, it's mostly been men, who like to buy sex from underage girls, know that Oakland's a good place to get a girl under 18 who's a prostitute.
We have girls that come from out of state to prostitute in Oakland who are under 18, and I've asked them, 'Well, how did you end up in Oakland?' and they'll say, 'Don't you know that everywhere else, coming to Oakland to do your thing is a big thing?'"
Some of the things that Nola has found helps the girls she works with are having an advocate that they can trust present from the time that they make contact with police, and having a safe place to stay for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, Alameda County doesn't have a safe house, although it is an essential component to the girls' being able to change their lives, as Nola explains,
"If there was a 14 year old girl, let's say she's a foster care youth. So she doesn't have a mother, father, any stable family. She's a foster care youth, which means she's part of the system. She's staying in a group home, let's say. And say she's out there prostituting and she has a vicious pimp. And she wants to get out of it, but she knows that she can't just stop because he won't let her. And she knows that he'll come right to her group home and kick the front door in and drag her out of it. There's no place to send her where she could be safe, like a refuge. You know, there's no place in this whole County, for girls in this County, where we can say, 'Okay, you want to get out? Okay, you're going to be able to go to this place, this is a place where you can stay, you can get your life together.' We don't have that yet, and so that's something we're working towards. We have some things in the works, but it just can't happen fast enough when there are 12 year old girls out there prostituting. It can't happen fast enough."
Despite the challenges, there are success stories:
"One of the things that I do is, I go out with the Oakland Police Department when they do prostitution sweeps, and when they bring in prostitutes under the age of 18, then I have to be their advocate on the scene. Probably about a year and a half ago now, I was on a sweep with the police, and they brought in a young girl, and she was from out of state, and she ended up going to Juvenile Hall, and she hadn't given her right name. So she was in Juvenile Hall for about a month, and we were getting ready to send her off to a program in LA called Children of the Night, it's a volunteer program for prostitutes who are under 18 who want to make a life change and have their school on-site, and stuff like that, it's a comprehensive program.
Well, the day before she was supposed to go, a report came through from the state showing that she was a missing person and showing what her real name was. I ended up being able to get in contact with her mother, and her mother came down to come to the court date in this County. It turned out she had all kinds of warrants in the state she was from because she was involved in a big prostitution ring out there where there was a female madam who was prostituting all these girls under 18. It got busted, and everyone was in danger. It was just crazy. She was in a lot of mess. So they decided to let the warrants go as long as she went through the program that was recommended by this County, and she ended up becoming a 600, which is a minor who would be on probation though Alameda County Probations Department, and we ended up finding a placement for her in a group home that was out of this immediate area, and that we had had success before with other girls. She was in Juvenile Hall for like two or three months and the whole time she was in the Hall, I was able to keep in touch with her, go visit her, and I was able to keep in touch with the family, who was out of state. Then she went to the group home, and she's been there for a year now, and she's doing well.
She's going to school, you know, she's been able to go home on five day passes to visit her family, and she had come from a history of abuse, too, within the home. So she ran to the streets in the beginning, because of the abuse in the home, to prostitute. She prostituted in her state, she ended up out here prostituting, and then through the intervention of the program, she was able to turn her life around, and she has completely cleaned her life up. Her mom's even saying that soon she thinks that she'll be ready to come back home, and her mom moved from where they lived at previously so that when she comes back home she'll be coming into a different environment. . . . She had a lot of risk factors that presented themselves, that said that she wouldn't get out of the life, that she'd be someone that might stay in the life for the rest of her life, and she completely turned it around."
Nola's passion for her work, comes from a very personal place,
"I was sexually exploited [as a minor], and I was preyed upon by a police officer in San Francisco who was supposed to be working a court program that interacted with high school students, and he actually ended up sexually exploiting me over the course of the next year, and he did eventually exploit another minor too, and ended up getting kicked off of the police force. I didn't realize that I had been sexually exploited until I first started to get into this work, and when I realized I had a personal experience with it, it really gave me a passion, and really made me want to get involved, because I understood how much the girls don't understand they're being exploited at the time that it's happening. For a lot of these girls, their stories, and their situations were so, so horrific.
Not a lot of people can do this work, because not a lot of people could even deal with what they have to do as they listen to these girls' stories. You think most of these girls, they're just troubled girls. No, most of these girls that are out there, they have some horrific stores, like, 'My mom died and I was passed around to three relatives,' 'I was molested by an uncle.' It's not anything small. They have really huge stories of past trauma and past abuse, and just all kinds of things. I got kind of attached to the population, too, and I wanted to see the work play itself through. I want to see the numbers in the city of Oakland decrease, so I'm committed to sticking to doing this until there's a drop. As long as it's increasing, I'm not going to walk away from it."
If you would like to get involved in your community around these issues, here are a few steps Nola suggests that you take:
"The police department is one avenue, although I wouldn't say it's the only avenue. Because through the police department, they have units that work with the community. So that's a really good place to start, like if you started to go to those community meetings that are held by the police department, and it's by a non-uniformed person, then that would be a really good place to start and organize and say, 'Where in our city are we seeing this happen? What's the best response to this?' Because it is going to be different city to city. . . Now, if it's folks here in Oakland, and they want to help with this, they can call me, here at the Scotlan Center, because basically, for the city of Oakland, even for the County of Alameda, right now we're like the clearinghouse for people who are interested in working with sexually exploited minors.
Also, you can go to local community service agencies, if you're in a different city, and try to find out if they're already working with this population, and if they are, how you might be able to help. I mean, one way you can just help, which is really general, it doesn't matter where you live, is just by raising awareness. Talk to a young girl about what's the difference between a pimp and boyfriend. You know, talk to a young girl just about a healthy relationship. Or just take time to mentor a young girl, because you can prevent this too, just by reaching out to a young person, and I keep saying girl, but there are lots of boys being sexually exploited, too.
If there's nothing happening in your city, and you want to start something, then have a meeting with some of the different systems, like maybe your juvenile probation department, your police department and your social services agency, because these are going to be the three main systems that most of the minors that are involved in exploitation are going to end up running through. They're either already foster youth, or they'll get arrested, or they'll end up at Juvenile Hall."
You can contact Nola Brantely at the Scotlan Youth and Family Center at (510) 832-1490 or by email at nolabrantley AT yahoo DOT com. You can hear this interview in its entirety on The Big Vision Podcast, and if you know a Solutionary Woman who you think should be profiled, please contact me at britt AT brittbravo.com.