It’s a story too terrible to tell.

But Duñia Zelaya, wants to tell it. The 31-year-old mom wants to leave something for other girls and women “in the life.” She wants Angelenos to know about the real horrors of sex trafficking. Not in developing countries, where destitute poor girls have few options but to sell their bodies to survive. No, right here in SoCal where “throwaway” homeless kids are also trying to eke out an existence on the mean streets of L.A., Van Nuys and Compton.

She is sitting at a round glass table in the headquarters of CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking) wearing a blue-patterned sleeveless blouse with small purple designs and black slacks. Her hair is pulled back in a bushy ponytail. And her semi-smile hides the unimaginable.

There are many ways girls — along with some boys — get into the life.

Probably the most common is they become romantically involved with somebody usually older, who manipulates them into acts of prostitution. Promises of a modeling, dancing or a movie career also attract a fair number. But the last path is probably the hardest to fathom. Girls as young as kindergarteners are commanded to engage in sex by their own parents or other adult relatives.

That’s Duñia’s story.

She remembers being maybe 7 when her mother dressed her all up in a minishirt, tank top and high heels. Fixed her hair to look older. And applied a lot of makeup to cherub-looking cheeks, eyes and lips.

Then her mother loaded her and her two older sisters, who had gotten themselves ready, into their car and headed west toward Santa Monica. “Me and my next older sister were kinda confused. We didn’t know really what was happening,” she recalls. “My oldest sister, she just kept telling us, like, ‘You guys got to do what she’s telling us to do. Eventually, you guys will get over it.’”

The car stopped at two bars to drop off her sisters. Then it headed back towards L.A. “I remember that first time vividly in the cantina,” she says. “I had to go into the bar, and I was forced to go into a restroom, and then there would be a man that would follow me. He would hold my hand, then, you know. ... And then I was brought out by this man. I remember that he paid the counter lady, and then the counter lady paid my mom,” she says.

“I remember the various times I was brought to this cantina, and it was, like, the person was already waiting for me there. And I would just have to do the same thing. And then I remember what she also used to do. We used to live in one bedroom in a house. And she used to put curtains up and rent the other part. There were also some men there that abused me that lived in the home here in Los Angeles.”

After a while, she continues: “I remember after my first times — I was bulimic as a kid — after the men used to touch me, I used to make myself throw up.”

Duñia says how she never felt normal at school. But she learned English, unlike her sisters who didn’t go to school, and became her mother’s favorite.

“Why?”

“I would get English-speaking customers, you know, who paid more,” she explains. “And it was like that for many years.”

Duñia would tell herself that if she continued going to the bars, just maybe her mother would love her more. She yearned for affection. So she kept doing it, some days staying in places from opening to last call. But the more men who held her hand, the more money her mother wanted.

At 11, the Department of Children and Family Services took her away from her mother. But it was for neglect. The county agency never suspected what was really going on. Back home she started using drugs, getting in fights at school and hanging with a gang. She says she had her first baby at age 12.

Duñia became a ward of the juvenile court and had five foster-home placements. When she’d run away back to her mother, she would return to the bars, too. But by 17, she couldn’t do it any longer.

So she started running around the streets, ending up with any man who would give her a place to stay. And she ticks off the places like a train schedule: Pasadena, West Hollywood, Van Nuys, Pacoima. All total she says she had eight kids and one “forced” marriage.

“My childhood memories are not like others,” she says matter of factly. “Like, you ask your daughter and she says, ‘Oh, I remember mom playing with me.’ My childhood memories are dancing on a table naked in a bar for men.”

Promises by pimps

Most sexually trafficked youths are girls, and like Duñia, are from the margins of American society. And like her, many come from broken families, have been in and out of foster care, and wind up running away and living on the street. A number have been sexually abused at an early age, but usually by family members, not strangers in a bar.

On the street, new boyfriends are really pimps promising a faster — and better — life, including a place to live, clothes and lots of spending money. They come in two basic types. The Romeo pimp is a real charmer and all his girls want to please him by turning the most tricks. The guerrilla pimp, on the other hand, operates by intimidation and fear. And he’s not afraid to damage his merchandise if he has to.

What they share here in Los Angeles is that most are gang members or have close gang affiliations. Also, both are master manipulators, knowing what buttons to push to recruit and control their workers. The National Runaway Switchboard reports that 1 in 3 victims is recruited into sex work within 48 hours of being on the street.

The federal definition of sex trafficking, which California abides by, is much broader than transporting victims across borders. Anybody who’s compelled to take part in a commercial sex act by “force, fraud or coercion” is legally considered a trafficking victim. In addition, youths under 18 — regardless if there’s evidence of force, fraud or coercion — are considered victims because they’re not old enough to give legal consent.

U.S. law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, have made great strides in how young victims of sex trafficking are perceived as victims, not juvenile offenders. (See “Task force fights human trafficking in L.A. County” sidebar.) But the Center for American Progress has noted, “there is still a great deal of work to be done to reframe the issue as one of abuse and exploitation of children rather than one of teenage prostitution.”

In its report, “3 Key Challenges to Combating the Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States,” the center points out that the notion of a teen prostitute who voluntarily engages in sex for money unfortunately persists.

“The failure to recognize these young people as victims of a serious crime in many jurisdictions means that they are often repeatedly arrested for prostitution, prosecuted, locked up in jails or juvenile detention facilities with dangerous offenders, and released back into the community with nothing more than a criminal record — and frequently more trauma from the experience,” it concludes.

Victims not criminals

Stephany Powell, executive director of Journey Out, strongly agrees that young people who become ensnared in sex trafficking are victims, not criminals. And she felt the same way when she worked vice in the San Fernando Valley during a 30-year career with the Los Angeles Police Department. Back then and today, L.A. is one of the nation’s leading hubs of sex trafficking.

“I really truly believe it and I’m very glad to see law enforcement taking a more victim-centered approach,” she says. “Just in the three years I’ve been retired from the LAPD and have worked here, I’ve seen the change in all law enforcement agencies — the city and district attorney’s offices, federal prosecutors, as well as specialized agencies,–– like the FBI and Homeland Security.”

Journey Out, formerly the Mary Magdalene Project, offers workshops and counseling for women, men and transgender individuals seeking help in exiting the lifestyle of commercial sexual exploitation. Survivors of sex exploitation facilitate the workshops. And Powell assists at some. She says the dynamics of leaving the life are similar to breaking away from domestic violence, because most women victims live with their pimps.

Why it’s so hard to leave boils down to two things.

“If you’re talking about a 23-year-old, and the fact that the entry level into the life is usually about 13, 14, she’s been with him for 10 years, right,” Powell points out. “So it’s longevity. The longer she’s in, the harder it is for her to get out. Because she’s formed an emotional bond with him. And the pimp knows how to fill any void she may have — for love or telling her she’s pretty or whatever. That’s the Romeo pimp.

“The guerilla pimp is the guy who’s going to be more aggressive and mean. But he’s keeping her alive like Patty Hearst. He’s giving her her life. So you have the Stockholm Syndrome, she feels beholden to him. And that creates a bond, too. Plus he’s probably a gang member, so she also fears him.

“Then, where do you leave to if you don’t have much of a family to go to?” she adds. “And now you are dealing with the stigma of what people consider being a prostitute. Plus your arrest record might be too long to get a regular job. So it kind of becomes, ‘I might as well stay here.’ Because you’ve given up.”

Powell, who has a doctorate in education, notes that law enforcement agencies have done a good job in understanding the victimization of sex trafficked juveniles. And now they’re starting to recognize the same dynamics for young adults. But she says a lot still needs to be done to see them as real victims.

“Once she turns 18, her problems don’t stop,” she says. “The bottom line is this victimization of trafficking does not have a stopping point. They all need to be paid attention to with services.”

Some 66 percent of Journey Out’s clients last year haven’t returned to the life, she reports. That’s notable, with research showing sex trafficked victims can have six or seven “false starts” before finally leaving. And the longer they remain, the scarier the regular world seems. So even though their daily existence is dangerous and dysfunctional, they know how to operate in it.

Beside survivors leading free workshops and onsite counseling, the agency’s best practice is meeting clients where they are, according to Powell. “We want to help them with their journey out of this whatever that journey is,” she explains.

“And the other part of meeting them where they are is some of the girls that we service aren’t ready to get out of the life yet. So helping them come up with an exit plan when they do decide to get out is really important. If you make the decision to leave your pimp, how are you going to go about doing that?”

Programs include a prostitution diversion program with the district attorney’s office in three locations: Van Nuys, Korea Town and South L.A. If arrestees attend sessions led by a survivor at Journey Out, their case will be dismissed. “Ending the Game” also works with the district attorney in an intervention program for youths.

The agency offers prevention curriculum programs called “My Life My Choice” and “Word on the Street” to young girls in group homes, schools and community centers. Sessions go over the tactics pimps and traffickers use to recruit victims into the commercial sex industry.

Journey Out also provides one-on-one mentoring to women and girls currently in the life. And a street outreach program in the San Fernando Valley hands out goody bags and information about the center and its drop-in programs.

In addition, there’s ongoing community education and training on commercial sex exploitation and sex trafficking to law enforcement, ER doctors, social workers and service providers.        

The former LAPD sergeant said she learned about the then-called Mary Magdalene Project while leading a vice unit in the San Fernando Valley. She often referred “working girls” to the agency, but never thought she would be leading it.

“I always saw the women as victims and wanted to help them. But I had to learn patience here,” she says with a small smile. “And sometimes I would get disappointed, because we’d see somebody on the right path and then watch them fall off. Because sometimes they’ll self-sabotage because they’re afraid to succeed. And understand, too, that I may not see the fruits of my labor right away. It may be just a seed we planted.”

From girls and women she has learned that they’re no different than anybody else. They have the same dreams. Unfortunately, their dreams and their lives have been taken over by the modern phenomenon of trafficking.

She’s also learned from pimps and traffickers. Many of these gang members are also coming out of the foster care system and from abusive homes themselves. She believes it goes back to “hurt people hurt people.” And at some point he becomes the manipulator, predator and abuser, while she becomes his victim.

“I love what I do,” Powell says.

“Why?”

“Working vice, I really enjoyed working and helping out these women and girls,” she answers without thinking. “So now I get to do the same thing, but in another capacity where I can really help them, because I don’t have to arrest them. So for me I think I’ve gone full circle.” 

                             

“Help me?”

While in juvenile hall, Duñia Zelaya met Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, who had started something called Homeboys to work with gang kids in Boyle Heights. The teenager didn’t make it through any of its programs. But she kept coming back before failing again.

“I finally put my hands up and said, ‘Hey, I can’t do this life no more. Help me?’” she says. “They sent me to a program and that’s when I started my journey. ‘Shields for Families,’ a drug treatment program in Compton. And I started working on my addiction with a sponsor and a therapist. And then they referred me to CAST, and the last four months of my journey has been here. Three days a week. It’s the best support that I’ve had. And I love it here. I love it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, because I’ve been able to interact with other survivors, you know. It’s like we’ve known each other for years. They don’t judge me. Like, other organizations that I’ve been through don’t know how to help you or what to do with you because they’ve never treated anyone that has been trafficked. And here it’s like I’m just myself. Like they know me. I don’t have to hide who I am. I’m myself.”

She has become an intern for CAST’s survivor leadership program. Right now she’s helping plan how they can reach out to new members in other organizations.

“How come what you went through didn’t destroy you?”

“It did destroy me, it destroyed me,” Duñia says. “It was killing me. Even at Homeboys, they didn’t know what was really going on that kept me out there on the street. I would say little bits. I would talk about my domestic violence abuse, my addiction. But never really got down and dirty and talked about my trafficking. It was only after my sponsor found out, she started encouraging me and looking at other programs that led to CAST.”

There’s so many young people being trafficked in Southern California and not nearly enough efforts geared to help them get out of the life, she points out. And some don’t want to admit what their own parents did to them.

She wants to reach out especially to L.A.’s Hispanic community. Wants to break through the cultural notion of what happens in your home, no matter how bad, stays there. Wants to encourage folks to say something if they see something.

“I speak for the people out there,” says Duñia. “Don’t be afraid. There is a way out. If I could do it, you guys could do it. I know it’s difficult. It was part of my life: my mom. And it’s really difficult when a family member does that to you, especially a family member that you’re supposed to look up to and supposed to care for you. But I know my story isn’t the only one.”

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Highlights

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