The public is being put on notice: When you see 12-year-olds, 13-year-olds or 17-year-olds sold for sex from the streets of Oakland you’re 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 bus shelter advertisements warning of the true nature of this crime and offering help to its victims.
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.
“Buying a teen for sex is child abuse. Turning a blind eye is neglect,” reads another billboard.
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.”
But even though her 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.
“It’s now more like several hundred kids a night,” said youth advocate Elizabeth Smith from MISSSEY, a non-profit that provides safety and counseling to victims and whose acronym stands for Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth. For years, law enforcement had used an official count of 100 kids trafficked each night.
That is why the D.A.’s office, Clear Channel and MISSSEY want the public to know. They want people to 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.
Another person who urgently wanted to raise awareness was the person who voluntarily designed the billboards and sign campaign. Oakland Mother Genice Jacobs, a volunteer with MISSSEY, pulled together a team of advertising professionals to create the signage and billboards pro bono. She recruited creative director Suzanne Boutilier, graphic designer Jed Davis, and photographer Tom Page as well as human trafficking survivors to design and create the billboard and bus shelter ads. They all volunteered their services. Jacobs said she had mentored a young girl who was a foster child and had been trafficked. She said she wanted to save girls like her. Jacobs said she initiated the conversation with the District Attorney, Clear Channel and MISSSEY about an advertising campaign.
MISSSEY Executive Director Nola Brantley said Thursday that the crime of child sex trafficking needs many attacks because it has proven so intractable.
“This crime against our children is happening right in our backyard,” said Nola Brantley, founder and executive director of MISSSEY.
Supply and demand fuel this trade, they said.
“Poverty, widespread generational poverty” is fueling supply, Brantley said, explaining 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, it is large source of supply.
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.
“Demand” is another answer for the trafficking surge, O’Malley said. 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 Thursday. 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.”
“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.”