Homeless Youth Awareness: Black Girls Most At Risk
By Dianne Anderson
Young girls abducted for high-priced profits always seem to happen in other countries condemned for human rights abuses, never in places like Orange County or Long Beach.
But by the time Tera Hilliard sees them, they’re around 20 years old, and have been in the game since they were 12.
She notices an uptick in sex workers, especially in the bad economy.
“We’re finding because of the economy and other factors that girls are targeted by predators, especially from the lower economic status. You have a major population of at-risk youth aged out of the foster system,” said Hilliard, president/CEO of Forgotten Children, Inc.
In this National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, she said unsheltered foster youth are always at higher risk. It’s not that they wake up and decide to sell their bodies to make ends meet, but more likely, they are trapped and groomed for the long haul.
At one point, she said her program had street teams out four times a month to map hot zones where the girls work, but with the increased violence, they now only go out once a month. When they do, they distribute freedom bags, lip gloss, mouthwash, gum and a calling card. They have a 24-hour hotline for the girls to call anytime.
On average, she serves 30 to 40 girls a month from Orange County to South L.A., and Long Beach, but traffickers consistently keep the girls on the move to avoid police detection.
“He’ll move her to South L.A., to Orange County down to Vegas, up to Barstow. The girls are not from one specific area,” she said.
Traffickers are unseen, but runners make sure the girls meet quotas of $500 to $1,000 a day.
She said it’s more than prostitution. It’s domestic violence, years of trauma, sexual assault. She sees belt marks, cigarette burns, tattoos.
The girls are property, and they stop fighting out of fear.
“The traffickers tell them I’ll kill your family, I’ll kill you,” she said. “We’ve had girls that it took a broken jaw, a broken collar bone, that forced them to get out versus just walking away.”
Her program works with the Long Beach Police Department with many girls referred from the vice unit, and the prosecutor’s office.
Long Beach recently had a sting operation with one girl picked up thought to be involved in a home invasion robbery. Instead, they found she was part of a huge trafficking ring, and happened to be working that night. She is now one of their key witnesses.
“We worked with Long Beach Police Department to get her out of California, back to a safe place, undisclosed location until the trial starts because she is the key witness,” she said.
Violence against women is not new, although hardly talked about until the 1980s.
Before Hilliard got involved, it never occurred to her that human trafficking was so entrenched in America. Hilliard herself was raised as a foster child and never involved in prostitution, but her mother was a drug-addicted prostitute.
She wanted to know how women get caught up in survival sex. She met with the founder of Forgotten Children nonprofit, Pastor Paula Daniels, who educated her on the extent of human trafficking.
“That’s what got me involved, sometimes you start to look at your own story. It all began to make sense,” she said.
Her program has teams in Orange County, around Harbor Blvd, a major prostitution track. She said the difference between South L.A. and Orange County is that traffickers put their names in papers for their buyers to find them.
Until relatively recently, she said young girls were labeled child prostitutes, but no one talks about the buyers.
“These men come down from PV [Palos Verdes] from Malibu, from South Los Angeles to buy young Black prostitutes. They create demand. The traffickers serve as the go-between the buyer and the girl. He’s making sure that she’s out there [so] the demand is met,” she said.
While Hilliard works on the correction side of the problem of exploitation, Wendy Gladney works on preventing the pitfalls for girls as young as sixth grade.
Gladney was also a victim of sexual abuse and abandonment, and has spent her adult life exploring ways to empower young girls by lifting their self-esteem. Some girls decide to enter into prostitution because they have been abused.
“Young women who have experienced any level of abuse, abandonment issues, all of that plays a role in choices they make, good or bad. Some [feel always pressured] to make all of the right decisions. It plays a role in every aspect of their lives and choices they make until they get some level of help,” said Gladney, founder of Forgiving for Living, Inc.
She said consulting, coaching and therapy can help the girls develop a healthy mindset until they believe they are worthy.
“It’s a constant battle. It’s something you have to remind yourself every day,” said Gladney, a consultant who works with at-risk girls ages 13-18 to provide mentoring and life skills.
These days, many more mothers and children are on the streets, as well as unaccompanied youth, emancipated minors and TAY [transition aged youth] aged out of foster care.
“All are growing in number of the homeless community,” she said. “That becomes a compound effect of those that have suffered sexual abuse and emotional abuse. Mental health issues of people who are homeless and on the street are all compounded by economics.”
Gladney reaches sixth through ninth graders with curriculum that was developed for her ongoing program, along with a partner college. This school year, they continue to partner with the Boys of Girls Club of Watts Willowbrook, as well as virtual conferences.
They build self-esteem, and provide the foundational tools to be empowered.
“You need to have a safe space, understanding what is and where they can get help. That has to be identified before you have the problem, not when you’re in the middle of the problem and don’t know where to go.”
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For more information, see https://vawnet.org/material/sex-trafficking-black-women-and-girls