(CNN) – Children sold for sex and branded by their pimps. It’s a disgusting thought, but a terrifying reality for a surprising number of victims in Los Angeles, California.
CNN’s Sara Sidner met some of the girls who have been saved from the streets but left with a permanent reminder of their nightmare.
Her five-part series is the latest reporting in the Freedom Project, CNN’s ongoing effort to expose human trafficking.
Take a look at the first installment of Sara’s special report.
They’ve been called all sorts of names over the years, from ladies of the night to prostitutes. But when they’re underage, police now have a different name for them. Capt. Lillian Carranza of the Los Angeles Police Department says, “We have come a long way in recognizing that these children are victims. They are not the suspects.”
These days one of the surest ways to tell that a person has been trafficked: the marks on their bodies.
Sgt. Ron Fisher of the Los Angeles Police Department says, “The tattoos tell the story if they’ve been around long enough.”
On patrol with LAPD’s Van Nuys vice unit, Sergeant Fisher says it’s common to see girls with brands…that signify ownership. “The typical tattoos that a pimp will use are dollar signs. They’ll have a tattoo of a money bag, they’ll have the crown that stands for the whole pimping thing.”
Police say the girls rarely come to them for help. Instead, it’s when they get arrested that intervention sometimes happens. That is how this 15 year old found refuge from her trafficker. Vice cops getting her to a safe house, called Children of the Night.
(Sara Sidner, CNN Reporter) “What were you afraid of?”
(Sex Trafficking Victim) “I was scared he might kill me or he might kill my dad, because he always used threats like that, and he always had guns. There was just gangs, gang relations, and, so it was really hard to avoid him. I was scared.”
At 13, when she should have been worried about homework, she was being branded, bought and sold by a friend of her drug addicted father.
(Sex Trafficking Victim) “I didn’t really know how to sleep with people, because I was really young and I had never had sex before.”
(Sara Sidner, CNN Reporter) “So you were a virgin?”
(Sex Trafficking Victim) “So, um, and then, he’s like, ‘he’s going to teach you what to do and everything,’ and I just went with it because I thought, ‘ok, this is the lifestyle I am going to live for the rest of my life.’
So she thought nothing of the tattoo he insisted on giving her: his initials on her ankle.
(Sex Trafficking Victim) “One day he was like I tattoo all my girls. So, they took out Indian ink and a needle and he just did it.
The mark of slavery.
Anti-trafficking activist Lois Lee, founder of Children of the Night, says, “That’s not the way kids see it as. They belong to somebody, it’s important to them, ‘someone’s claimed me.'”
Lee knows how they think. For more than 30 years, her organization, “Children of the Night,” has been a safe haven for sex-trafficked children. She says on the streets, new laws targeting sex traffickers have had some unintended consequences.
“There’s fewer children prostituting because the gangs control them and they serve less time for using them for other kinds of crimes so why would you use them for sex if you could get life in prison or 20, 40, 60, 80 years for torture and kidnapping. Go use them for a burglary, use them for a carjacking, give them a gun. So you don’t go to jail.”
(Sara Sidner, CNN Reporter) “But the result is the same the kids are stuck in a horrible life.
(Lois Lee, Founder of Children of the Night) “There should be a law that anyone who uses a child in any kind of crime suffers the same penalties as if they use them for human sex trafficking.”
Lee says as horrible as that life may be, far too often the nightmare begins at home, where girls are sexually abused or neglected, making life with a trafficker seem more alluring.
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