Stolen Youth: Fighting Back Against Sex Trafficking

Street gangs have found that pimping out girls is a good business. It’s more lucrative and lower-risk to traffic a young girl than to sell guns or drugs.

The FBI estimates that 100,000 children are sold for sex each year. Three of the “high intensity prostitution” areas identified by the FBI are in California – and San Diego is one of them. The other two are Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But San Diego County is aggressively attacking the problem and becoming a national model in the fight against the commercial sexual exploitation of children. The battle to keep young girls and boys from becoming ensnarled in a seemingly never-ending world of sexual and physical abuse is complicated because of the many ways gangs and pimps are finding new victims.

“One of the ways girls are recruited is through boyfriend seduction,” said Charisma de los Reyes, a San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) social worker who is heavily involved in the anti-exploitation efforts. “Older guys seduce them and then turn them out; basically telling the girl ‘this is what you’re going to do now.’”

A lot of recruitment also happens right on school grounds, where there are plenty of potential victims. Younger boys who are being mentored into a gang are also on school grounds every day.

“It’s easier in terms of recruitment and for the guys to keep an eye on what’s happening,” said de los Reyes. “That’s where we started to discover the children who are developmentally disabled were really being sought after.

“Literally the pimping would be happening right on campus during school time.”

There is a lot of girl-to-girl recruitment as well, according to Kim Giardina, an HHSA Child Welfare Services manager. “Once a girl is highly involved, she will start recruiting her friends.”

“That would be the demand from her pimp,” de los Reyes said. “That’s the way it’s set up in the hierarchy within the culture.


Every girl in the pimp’s “family” wants to be the bottom b**ch. Despite the way it sounds, the bottom b**ch is basically the top prostitute in a pimp’s stable of girls.

“She’s usually 25 to 27 and she runs the wifeys – and then younger ones below that,” said de los Reyes. “It’s very hierarchical and wifeys are the mentors for the younger girls, and the bottom b**ch was their mentor.”

The pimping would be happening right on campus during school time.
-Charisma de los Reyes,
County social worker

Wifeys are generally 19- or 20-years old.

The bottom b**ch is the one who handles everything from money to recruitments because the pimp wants to make sure he’s far away from any links to criminal activity.

“What these girls buy into is when he says ‘oh baby, I need you to be the one on the lease’, it gives her a major ego boost,” said de los Reyes. “But he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Now if law enforcement becomes involved, it’s harder to trace anything to the pimp. The house, the car – nothing is in his name.

Enforcement of the rules within the stable of girls is brutal if one of them does something wrong.

“The girl will be beaten so badly, but because of the psychological stronghold she won’t even go to the doctor,” said de los Reyes. “The group will enforce the norms of the life and if you step out of line, it’s coming.”

There are very specific rules to the game. According to de los Reyes several books and videos have been made about rules of the game and they’ve been passed down from generation to generation.

One of the “perks” of being in this lifestyle is you get to travel – but it’s no vacation.

San Diego is part of a circuit. That circuit frequently includes Orange County, Los Angeles, Oakland, Vegas and Phoenix. Girls are sent to work long hours selling themselves in hotels.

“What these cities have in common is they are big convention cities so there are always big events going on,” said de los Reyes.

“The internet plays a huge role, she said. “It’s not so much where the girls are on the street – although that does still happen – now it’s more what they call in-calls or in-service where the pimp will put the girl in a hotel and then she’s posted on the internet and the business is done there in the hotel.”


Warning Signs of Sex Trafficking


  • Running away from home
  • Truancy, chronic absenteeism
  • Sudden drop in grades
  • Change of friends or alienation from regular friends
  • Rumors among students regarding sex activities
  • Sudden change in behavior, attitude or attire
  • Anger, aggression, being suicidal or fearful
  • Claims of a new and mysterious “boyfriend”
  • Use of drugs (i.e. marijuana and ecstasy)
  • Weight loss
  • Bruises or other physical trauma
  • New cell phone or multiple cell phones
  • Use of terminology related to prostitution


East County is ground zero in the battle: not because the problem there is any worse, but because the community came together to build a network that’s working to prevent children from becoming exploited.

The shifting pieces of the problem make detection difficult. Victims feel ashamed and embarrassed. Pimps discover new ways to stay one step ahead of the law. The situation can also be very different for each victim, which makes it hard to piece together trends.

Grossmont Union High School District first noticed the pattern of several students falling prey to pimps during the school’s annual three-day student retreat called Camp Lead.

“It’s an experiential camp and the kids talk about human race relations, justice, bullying, really anything that could be impacting a school site,” said de los Reyes. “They purposely pair successful students, such as an ASB president, head cheerleader, etc. with students who are struggling to stay in school, at-risk for dropping out, have gang involvement, etc.

“At school they can be very segregated, but at Camp Lead, kids are forced to be together and interact and a lot of stuff comes out.”

“When there are high emotions, there’s a lot of vulnerability and the students feel safe enough to share with each other and counselors,” added de los Reyes.  “Girls started to realize, ‘I’ve been recruited.’  They just thought it was some smooth talking dude.”

Most employees of a school district are mandated by state law to report any sexual or child abuse. At the end of Camp Lead, the camp leader would call to report incidents that had been revealed.


The school district, County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, HHSA, the San Diego Police Department Vice Unit and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ office joined forces to address the issue.

We’re basically the only jurisdiction in the country that has such a coordinated effort to address these issues.
-Kim Giardina,
Child Welfare Services

At the urging of Jacob, the County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved her proposal to establish the San Diego Regional Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Advisory Council made up representatives of law enforcement, victim services organizations, education and community volunteer groups.

The San Diego efforts have drawn the attention of President Barack Obama’s administration. In June, George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, visited San Diego to get a first-hand look at county efforts.

“We’re basically the only jurisdiction in the country that has such a coordinated effort to address these issues,” said Giardina. “Federal officials wanted to see the training and protocols we had set up.

Along with new protocols, the vice unit has established a comprehensive training that has been given to all teachers in the Grossmont Union High School District and County social workers.

In 2008, all of the schools in East County, HHSA, County Probation, the San Diego County Sheriff’s office and El Cajon and La Mesa police signed a memorandum of understanding called Global Oversight for Analysis of Linking Systems (GOALS) that allows unprecedented sharing of information on students; giving authorities the ability to better analyze patterns.

The first analysis took an in-depth look at 30 students and identified 15 who were victims of sexual exploitation.


Once the communications between the different entities started, it became easier to spot victims.

“That’s why we chose the school district level and starting with the victim because if we can break that cycle, then we can do a lot of the prevention,” said Giardina.

“Our challenge, in terms of systems, is how to start to track children who may be at risk,” said de los Reyes. “Teachers and counselors and school resource officers really started to pay attention to the types of relationships children were having and with whom, even down to who was picking them up during lunch time and after school.”

She said pimps seem to be able discern which girls are vulnerable. “They know exactly what to say and how to say it. They’re basically grooming her the same way a child molester grooms child victims.”

Even once you get a youth to realize they are either a victim or potential victim, it can be hard to get them to provide information to authorities.

“It takes a long time to get the information and it takes time to put a pattern together,” said Giardina. The victims have learned to trust only the perpetrator of the crime.

De los Reyes said one important element is to be transparent about what the system can do for the victim, and not make promises you can’t deliver.


“Another challenge, from the legal perspective, has been that the girls get picked up as prostitutes and face charges as a criminal,” said Giardina. “But what we’re learning more and more and as we’re hearing story after story is that they’re really the victim.

I still hear stuff I’ve never imagined I’d hear.
-Kim Giardina,
Child Welfare Services

“That’s why the partnership with the District Attorney’s office has been so great,” she said. “They’ve been able to do some education amongst the whole department to really work with the girls as victims instead of just charging them as the criminals.”

It’s extremely hard for a girl to break free from a life of prostitution. Pimps make sure the girls keep very little of what they earn. He’s basically economically enslaved them.

“That’s what makes it so hard for them to get out of the lifestyle,” said Giardina. “They don’t have anything.”

“It’s akin to domestic violence,” said de los Reyes.

HHSA’s Child Welfare Services (CWS) is involved at many different levels. Foster youth can more easily become a victim of sexual exploitation because they tend to have fewer family ties.

“The other thing we’re starting to see is the girls who have been a part of this lifestyle are now coming in as moms,” said Giardina. “So we’ve got these girls who’ve been victims and their kids are being exposed to the violence and this type of lifestyle.

“Pimps will often ensure the girls get pregnant because now that’s leverage,” said de los Reyes. “They’ll threaten the girl and say if you don’t go out tonight, then say bye to your kid. Or, ‘I’ll call Child Protective Services on you and it’s my word against yours’.”

“We have heard some horrible stories,” said Giardina. “I still hear stuff I’ve never imagined I’d hear.”


There is hope that the attention of the Obama administration will bring funding and additional resources to combating sexual exploitation. So far, the local effort has been done without any additional funding.

“It’s about approaching our work in a different, better way with a coordinated effort to serve our communities,” said de los Reyes.

Grossmont Union High School District Superintendent Ralf Swenson has also been reaching out to other county school districts to get the cooperative efforts replicated around the region. The GOALS committee also continues to meet quarterly.

“There is definitely still a lot of work to do, but because of the HHSA East Region’s Neighborhood4Kids program we already had strong working relationships with our community partners and it’s been a great starting point,” said Giardina.

“There are just so many ways to tackle the problem: the pimp level, on behalf of the victim, or from the demand side.”

Tom Christensen is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact