Police abuse of trafficking victims weakens fragile help system

July 17, 2016

The girls are 16 and 17 years old. Sometimes as young as 10. They’re brought into juvenile hall wearing miniskirts and crop tops in the middle of February. Or they show up at an urgent-care clinic with three different sexually transmitted infections, or for their second pregnancy test in two months.

Stacey Katz, executive director of WestCoast Children’s Clinic in Oakland, knows that they are victims of sex trafficking, even if the girls don’t always say it. Their traffickers are men they call their boyfriends. Their abusers — their so-called clients — may be relatives, school counselors, lawyers. Sometimes, they’re cops.

Last month, when an 18-year-old woman began telling reporters she’d had sex with 29 Bay Area law enforcement officers over the past two years, including Oakland officers she met on the streets, Katz wasn’t surprised.

“That’s not a scandal — it’s something that’s happening all the time,” Katz said. “The problem is systemic.”

Her thoughts are echoed at agencies throughout the Bay Area that work with sexually exploited youth. This kind of abuse — inflicted by those who should represent a first line of protection — undermines a fragile system that seeks to get them safely off the streets, trafficking experts say.