OAKLAND -- More than 200 lawmakers, advocates, law enforcement officials and health care workers gathered Wednesday at the Oakland Museum to usher in the next phase of the Human Exploitation and Trafficking Watch, an Alameda County initiative to combat child trafficking that has gained national attention over the past few years.
"The HEAT Watch is the national gold standard," said U.S. Rep. Jackie Spears, D-San Mateo, who has been instrumental in pushing for tougher sentences on child traffickers in California, "And if I have my way, I want to see it replicated in every county in this country."
Alameda County spearheaded efforts to bring resources, time and attention to the issue through the HEAT program in 2006, and it now will broaden those efforts to include all nine Bay Area counties with the help of a $300,000 grant from the Department of Justice's Internet Crimes Against Children Unit. The money also will allow local and federal law enforcement and health agencies to coordinate in the fight against child sex trafficking in the region in more creative ways.
Human trafficking -- or, in the jargon of the industry, "modern-day slavery," -- is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the United States, alongside the illegal weapons trade, and second only to drug trafficking in sheer size and scope. According to the Polaris Project, which monitors human trafficking, at least 100,000 underage children in the United States are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation annually.
The average age of the victims has been steadily decreasing over time, officials say, and is now 12 to 13. Many victims, including scores that can be seen in broad daylight along some corners of Oakland's International Boulevard -- a stretch of road known simply as "the Track" among Oakland police -- are no older than 11.
"It is the most vile activity in our society today because it is modern-day slavery," said Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, the sponsor of two recently passed bills that have imposed tougher sentences on pimps and decriminalized underage victims who get caught up in prostitution and drug sweeps.
Worldwide, the State Department estimates that at least 1 million children are sexually exploited by traffickers each year, generating billions in revenue. Earlier this week, federal agents arrested 884 people in a nationwide crackdown on child prostitution rings. The sweep, dubbed Operation Cross Country, arrested at least 99 suspected pimps and freed 69 children. On Monday, authorities in Minnesota broke up three Somali child trafficking gangs and arrested another 29 people. Efforts to raise awareness about the problem in America's cities are growing.
"Domestic trafficking has been this thing that no one really wants to talk about," said FBI Special Agent Marty Parker, a San Francisco-based trafficking specialist who has been working with Oakland police for more than a decade. "You're helping women from China, but not helping the 12-year-old in your own backyard."
The trafficking of children is an especially acute problem in Oakland, which both federal and local law enforcement officials agree is what is known as an "origination" city. What that means is that a huge number of trafficking cases in other parts of the country have some link to Oakland, which is supplying unruly pimps with a steady stream of girls -- and sometimes boys.
"Oakland is a breeding ground for child prostitution," Parker said.
Oakland police, with the help of a crusading group of activists and lawyers in the courts and on the streets, have been trying to stem the problem at its source.
"We get to them at a vital point in the process," said Pat Mims, the sexually exploited child coordinator for Bay Area Women Against Rape, or BAWAR, one of the organizations that works with police to get young girls off Oakland's "Track."
"I'm here to speak for these kids because their families are selling them."
Mims and the staff at BAWAR intervene with young girls from the moment they get plucked off the streets by police, through the lengthy process of getting them help, and eventually moving them to safety. "These kids have been thrown away," he said, "We need to get these 12-year-olds back to doing what 12-year-olds are supposed to do."
Oakland police Chief Anthony Batts said Wednesday that the department remains committed to ending child trafficking, even as financial cuts have stripped him of officers and adequate resources.
"As our resources shrink, our dedication will not change," he said. "We stand here committed to saving these young lives."
Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429. Follow him at Twitter.com/scott_c_johnson.