Oakland pediatrician Dr. Barbara Staggers could tell you stories until your heart breaks.
She recalls a 15-year-old boy who came in to her clinic asking for a hug, because he knew he’d soon be shot dead, and Staggers was the only person he trusted to hold him. The doctor tried to intervene by placing him in a 72-hour involuntary hold, only to hear he’d been killed upon release.
Then there was the 18-year-old female who came in with a broken ankle. She’d jumped naked out of a second-story window after refusing her pimp’s demands to recruit 12- and 15-year-old girls into prostitution.
“I cannot recruit little girls to do what I’m forced to do,” Staggers recalled her saying. “I cannot do it. I’d rather die.”
Staggers, a longtime adolescent specialist at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, has a frontlines vantage on the sexual exploitation and violence plaguing the city’s teens. Over the past decade, she’s worked to better reach some of the city’s most vulnerable teens by opening two innovative school-based health clinics, one at East Oakland’s Castlemont High School and the other at McClymonds High School in West Oakland – two of the most violence-prone and health-poor areas in the nation. The school-based clinics try to intervene in young lives before it’s too late, but the challenges are daunting.
“In Oakland, I have been at Children’s 28 years and I’ve never seen the violence rates that I’m seeing now, particularly around sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of girls – and in terms of homicides,” Staggers said, speaking on Monday to fellows in the 2014 California Health Journalism Fellowship. “We had four homicides in my practice two weeks ago.”
Often a teen will come in for a check-up and only after a series of screening questions will clinic staff discover the patient is being abused and forced into prostitution.
“Right now, we’re seeing probably two to three sexually exploited minors in our clinic a day in some cases,” Staggers said.