- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) - A crackdown on sex trafficking in Southern California has led to 91 arrests and the rescue of nearly two dozen children who had been forced into prostitution, authorities announced Wednesday.

During the eight-month investigation, a federal and local task force arrested suspected human traffickers, pimps, johns and men who tried to meet children online for sex.

Authorities say 22 children, ages 12 to 17, and 54 women were put in touch with child welfare agencies, nonprofit support groups, probation officials and others who could help them.

Agencies in Los Angeles County are testing new protocols that provide trafficked sex workers with help instead of arresting them for prostitution, authorities said.

“The investigative interviews focused primarily on the actions that led to their arrest, and not the path that led them there,” Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said at a news conference.

McDonnell said the children included runaways from as far away as New York and Michigan. Authorities helped a woman from China return home after she came to the U.S. believing she’d be working for a legitimate business and was instead forced into prostitution.

Because many young victims were previously known by public agencies as foster children, welfare recipients or juvenile offenders, the protocols bring together the county Department of Children and Family Services, probation, law enforcement and Saving Innocence, a nonprofit victim-support group.

The guidelines require speedy intervention once trafficking victims are identified so they are provided support and tools to transition out of the trafficked lifestyle.

Many of the girls fall victim to a “Romeo pimp” situation where an older man lures the girl into a relationship, gaining her love and trust, before manipulating her into sex work, said Kim Biddle, founder and executive director of Saving Innocence.

“These children have endured a lot of complex trauma that includes entrapment, includes brainwashing, high levels of sexual and emotional and physical abuse, the inability to leave and the inability to know that there are options out there from him,” said Biddle, who said she was sexually exploited as a youth.

She said many of the women entered the sex industry as youths; the most common age of entry into the sex industry in the U.S. is between 12 and 14.

“These traffickers are surfing social media sites and even recruiting in area high schools and middle schools,” said Mark Selby, deputy special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.

The agency has made 196 arrests in connection with sex trafficking cases in the past year and secured 108 criminal convictions, said Selby.

He related the tale of one rescued victim, a 29-year-old woman who was sex-trafficked for nearly a decade and sold from pimp to pimp across the United States. She was frequently beaten, to temporarily blindness at one point, and branded with tattoos identifying her as the property of traffickers.

She told investigators that had they not found her, she would likely be dead. She’s now receiving mental-health therapy and applying for college and jobs.

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Tami Abdollah can be reached at https://www.twitter.com/latams.

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