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News / Nation & World

Human trafficking advocates insist exploited children shouldn’t be treated like criminals

By Andre Mouchard, The Orange County Register
Published: May 19, 2024, 6:00am

Picture a boy, maybe 15 or so, selling drugs or stealing cars or breaking into a department store and running out with everything he can get his hands on.

That kid is committing crimes, right?

Now, picture a different kid doing the same stuff. But instead of pocketing his illegal earnings he turns it over to a third party, a presumably older and more powerful person, someone who might do him or his family harm if that money isn’t paid.

Turns out, that second kid is living in a version of human trafficking known as “forced criminality.”

And, legally speaking, he, too, is committing crimes.

While police and prosecutors can (and often do) take an offender’s circumstances into account, they do so at their discretion; the law doesn’t carve out broad, automatic exceptions for cases of forced criminality. Crime is crime and, sometimes, the option to prosecute and incarcerate wins the day, even when the offenders in question are children and their lives suggest they don’t have much, or any, freedom.

But there’s an effort underway to change that.

A growing number of human trafficking advocates and some legislators are pushing for a shift in both public opinion and legal theory, one in which young people who commit crimes while under the control of human traffickers are recognized as victims, not just perpetrators.

“Children do not choose the way they’re exploited,” said Stephanie Richard, an attorney and human trafficking expert who helps run a new think tank at Loyola Law, the Sunita Jain Initiative.

“Why is it that the criminal justice system doesn’t question if there is a third party benefiting a child’s illegal services?”

Loyola Law’s location, Los Angeles, is part of the story. Southern California – already seen as a hub for forced sex work and, recently, for forced child labor in industries like poultry processing and garment manufacturing – is also widely viewed as a national epicenter for forced criminality. There isn’t reliable data about exactly how many local underage trafficking victims currently fall into that legal abyss, but experts peg a low-ball estimate at hundreds of children per year.

For now, Richard isn’t pushing for a broad shift in the law. And other trafficking advocates note that people who are victims of crimes, particularly violent crime, deserve justice, and that punishment of perpetrators, regardless of their circumstances, can be part of that.

Instead, Richard wants better training for police and prosecutors and judges to recognize when a child is being coerced into breaking the law, and how that coercion can color the rest of that person’s life.

There’s already precedent for what she’s seeking.

‘Change is possible’

As recently as 15 years ago, children who were caught up in prostitution sweeps were considered criminals. This was true even though the age for legal consent in California is 18, so any adult having sex with someone under that age – for money or by force or even consensually – was committing a crime.

But in recent years laws surrounding child sex trafficking changed. Today, an underage sex worker is viewed by police and courts as a victim, not a criminal; there no longer is any such thing, legally speaking, as a “child prostitute.” Experts say the shift has prevented thousands of young people in California from being prosecuted, and kept felonies off their criminal records.

“It makes sense now, of course, but that was a big change when it happened,” said Sandra Morgan, a longtime human trafficking advocate and director of the Global Center for Women and Justice at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa.

“So this kind of change is possible.”

Advocates point out that underage victims of forced criminality involving non-sex-related crimes are considered children in virtually every other aspect of their lives. By law, 15-year-olds aren’t deemed emotionally or intellectually capable of voting or drinking alcohol or driving. They aren’t old enough to sign many binding contracts or, in many cases, to have full control over their own finances.

Yet the same children are considered mature enough to be responsible for a smash-and-grab robbery or a meth sale or boosting a high-priced sports car.

Richard, among others, said trafficked children live in a constant state of fear of the people controlling their lives. Such conditions can compromise anybody’s decision-making, involving virtually any behavior, no matter their age.

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“It’s egregious that our child welfare system has been trained to only identify sex trafficking victims, and not others, as victims,” she said.

But Richard also suggested a legal shift could happen when more people are taught the basics of human trafficking. Three primary forces – physical coercion, threats against family, and duplicity – can render anyone subject to being victimized in a human trafficking scheme that can involve any type of profit-oriented behavior, illegal or otherwise.

“If you have a two-minute conversation with someone, and explain that (trafficking) can happen without commercial sex being involved, they get it,” Richard said.

“It’s not a difficult situation to explain.”

How it can happen

Jimmy Lopez was 9 when older members of a neighborhood gang told him he had to join with them or they’d hurt him or his family.

That was in Honduras, in the early 2000s. Lopez, now 30 and living in La Habra, said he believed – and still believes – they would make good on their threat.

“I had to leave. So I went to Mexico,” Lopez said. “I went alone.”

By the time he was 12, Lopez was in Los Angeles. He was working in – and living in – a furniture manufacturing operation, paying off what he believed was a debt he’d incurred during his journey to the United States. He says he didn’t go to school or see people who didn’t approve of his servitude. He added that he was beaten regularly.

He also didn’t have a phone, or know anything about making long-distance calls. So he was dependent on the owners of the furniture company for, among other things, any chance of speaking with his mother.

Still, after two years, he ran away again. He eventually found a restaurant and talked with owners who he thought were friendly. He accepted a job and a room, but again he wasn’t going to school or seeing people who knew about, or asked about, his living situation.

The restaurant owners soon asked him to do something else; drive cars to different locations in and around Los Angeles. He thought that since his treatment was better than it had been in the furniture plant he could trust his employers.

Soon, while driving one of those cars – without a license and, he says, with a face that looked far too young to have one – he was stopped by police. A search found two kilos of cocaine in the car.

“I had no idea,” Lopez said.

At 16, he was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 30 years in prison. For two years, Lopez said, he served time at the Los Padrinos Detention Center in Downey, with little support or hope for the future.

At 18, as he was about to be transferred to a men’s prison, Lopez tied a blanket around his neck and tried to hang himself.

“I was depressed, and not really even scared anymore. Just depressed,” Lopez said.

While recovering, he encountered a friendly public defender who, Lopez said, started a legal push that eventually led to his freedom.

Over the past 10 years, he’s worked as a cook and an airport security guard. He’s also worked in construction and recently attended school to learn more about that business. He said his family now lives in Long Beach.

He sometimes tells his story to groups working to help trafficking victims and others. He even testified in Congress.

“Almost all the time, like 98%, people hear my story and they feel compassion,” Lopez said. “But after I was done speaking in Congress, a man came up to me, after, and said ‘I don’t believe you at all.’”

When Lopez insisted otherwise, that what he said happened happened, he said the man just laughed and walked away.

“I guess there are some people who’ll always think that way,” Lopez said.

“But I know this: I’m not a criminal.”

Both kinds of trafficking

The effort to change thinking about forced criminality – and to raise awareness, generally, about labor-related human trafficking – figures to include at least some legislation.

Richard and others at Loyola Law pointed to two such proposals now being debated in Sacramento.

One idea, SB1157, from state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, a Democrat from Bakersfield, would prevent the state from buying products known to have been made with forced labor.

Another proposal, SB998, authored by state Sen. Susan Rubio, a Democrat who represents a district that includes Azusa and Baldwin Park, would expand services currently offered only to victims of sex-related human trafficking to people who’ve been victimized under labor-related trafficking, including those forced to commit crimes.

But the broader idea of recognizing the needs of people who suffered as victims of labor-related trafficking or even forced criminal behavior isn’t necessarily popular among people struggling to recover from forced sex work.

“I can see the argument. I don’t agree with it; I think everybody is victimized in these circumstances, and there isn’t any one group who is somehow hurt more than others,” said Aja Hoyle, a trafficking survivor and advocate.

“But I can understand why some people feel that one is more damaging,” she added.

“I did both.”

Hoyle said she was forced into sex work at age 13, in Oakland, after being released following a stay in a juvenile hall near where she grew up, in Santa Rosa. Her trafficker was a man she thought was her friend’s boyfriend.

“I learned on that first night that he wasn’t what I’d been told,” said Hoyle, now 32.

“He was just a pimp,” she added. “And I was being trafficked.”

Soon, Hoyle was pushed into working for another man, also in Oakland. In his house, she was forced to provide sex work and help tend to his illegal indoor cannabis farm.

If she’d been caught at that time, she might’ve been charged with drug crimes, even though her labor was coerced.

“I was providing work as a form of forced criminality,” Hoyle said.

“It took me several years to realize that, but that’s what it was.”

Though Hoyle said her trafficker routinely threatened her life, and carried a gun that he said he’d use to carry out his threat, she escaped, at age 17, in a fairly simple way. She took the regional metro across the bay to downtown San Francisco.

She said that ride, about 40 minutes, was a mix of exhilaration and abject terror.

“I remember feeling I was about to be free, finally. But I also remember thinking he was going to catch me, and kill me,” Hoyle said.

In the years since her escape, Hoyle said, she’s earned a high school GED, an undergraduate degree from Sonoma State University and a master’s degree from the University of California.

Hoyle also learned that her second trafficker was convicted of murder in Washington. He shot a former domestic partner 14 times as the woman was on the phone, to police, saying she was in fear for her life, Hoyle said.

At the time of the shooting, the man was the subject of at least one restraining order related to domestic violence, and subject to warrants in California that were issued after Hoyle filed charges against him. He’s now serving a life sentence, though Hoyle remains wary of any future release.

“Throughout his trial, I was afraid he would get away, come to California, and kill me,” Hoyle said. “I really believed that.

“That feeling, that fear, doesn’t totally go away, ever.”

She sometimes explains all that in her current job. She’s a human trafficking consultant, helping counties and others set up programs to help trafficking victims.

“I’ve experienced all kinds of human trafficking,” Hoyle said.

“And I’d say they all offer enough pain.”