The public is being put on notice: When you see 12-year-olds, 13-year-olds or 17-year-olds sold for sex on the streets of Oakland, you are witnessing child abuse and rape, usually under slave conditions. And ignoring it is immoral.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, the Oakland-based non-profit MISSSEY and billboard company Clear Channel Outdoor announced Thursday a campaign to blitz the city with billboards and advertisements in bus shelters, warning of the true nature of this crime and offering help to its victims.
The art work and messaging are thanks to Oakland volunteer Genice Jacobs who recruited a bunch of friends in the advertising industry to help create an advertising campaign. Her friends, creative director Suzanne Boutilier, graphic designer Jed Davis, and photographer Tom Page, as well as human trafficking survivors, all worked for free to design and create the billboard and bus shelter ads, coming up with startling words and images. Then they approached the District Attorney’s office and Clear Channel about putting them on signs and billboards.
“Buying a teen for sex is child abuse. Turning a blind eye is neglect,” reads another billboard.
Seven huge billboards were installed this week on Clear Channel properties on well-traveled highways and roads – the I-80 and 580 interchange, 980, Martin Luther King Boulevard – as a donation to the cause.
Child sex trafficking is “epidemic” in Oakland, said O’Malley, adding that seasoned criminals are leaving the drug trade to pimp adolescents instead, drawn by easy profits. Hundreds of kids are caught up in the life here, lured or coerced into selling sex, sometimes threatened at gun point, sometimes tied up in motel rooms.
“Every day in this city we have children who are being sold; they are being beaten, drugged, hustled, molested and raped,” O’Malley said. “These kids are human ATM machines for traffickers.”
Jacobs volunteered with MISSSEY which stands for Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth. A young girl who Jacobs mentored at MISSSEY was trying to break out of a life of bondage to her pimp. It was heartbreaking, Jacobs said, and very hard for the girl to do. “I want to help other girls like her,” she said. She also concluded that the problem is so big it needed more attention than a one-on-one help.
Even though the District Attorney’s office has aggressively prosecuted pimps and convicted 227 in the past six years, and the Oakland Police Department has dedicated a special unit to pursuing child sex traffickers, the crime has only grown in Oakland.
According to the FBI, the Bay Area is a “high intensity child prostitution area” and Oakland is its epicenter. Youth advocate Elizabeth Smith from MISSSEY estimated “several hundred kids a night” are coerced into offering sex. For years, law enforcement had used an official count of 100 kids trafficked each night.
O’Malley and MISSSEY asked that people be on alert for trafficking and call a tip line 510-208-4959 at H.E.A.T-Watch (Human Exploitation and Trafficking Watch) if they suspect a child is being trafficked.
MISSSEY Executive Director Nola Brantley said that the crime of child sex trafficking is so intractable that it must be tackled from many sides.
“This crime against our children is happening right in our backyard,” Brantley said.
“Poverty, widespread generational poverty” is fueling supply, Brantley said, while demand keeps fueling the problem. She said that kids living in poverty in Oakland are vulnerable to being lured by pimps and their promises of love and material things.
Because Oakland has so many kids from very low income families as well as runaways and foster kids, this city is a mecca for pimps and “johns,” their customers.
According to the West Coast Children’s Clinic, 75 percent of trafficked children have experienced child abuse or extreme neglect. According to a survey by the Alameda County Safety Net Program, 83 percent are runaways.
Numerous social service agencies and even the Oakland Unified School District have programs to rescue victims and warn them against traffickers. But the problem hasn’t seemed to abate because demand remains so high, O’Malley said. Yet law enforcement has not yet figured out how to deter people from buying sex.
Clear Channel vice president Bruce Quails said his company is hoping its billboards will send a message of the criminality to some of these would-be buyers. “One thing about our media. It can be extraordinarily effective; you can’t turn it off,” he said.
The seven billboards, 30 bus shelter signs and 20 outdoor posters Clear Channel donated will be up for a month.
The billboards direct people to ProtectOaklandKids.org to learn how to report a suspected incidence of trafficking. They can also call a tip line 510-208-4959 staffed by the D.A.’s office H.E.A.T-watch program.
The 30 signs installed in bus shelters – a common place for trafficking victims to sit while looking for customers – tell victims how they can get out of their situation. “When I was in the Life I thought I was alone. Then I found help from other people like me. I got out, U can 2. Call 510-645-9388.” Another reads, “When I was being bought and sold, all I wanted to do was get high. Now I’m getting my high school diploma. I got out, U can 2. Call 510-645-9388.