From left to right: Michelle Guymon, LBPD Chief Robert Luna, Supervisor Don Knabe, Jessica Midkiff, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, LACoFD Chief Daryl Osby, LASD Capt. Chris Marks. Photos by Stephanie Rivera.
County and city officials gathered inside the Long Beach Police Department’s (LBPD) headquarters Wednesday morning to launch a countywide pilot program aimed at providing safe places for child sex trafficking victims and children in desperate situations.
Under the Safe Youth Zone program, officials hope to eventually provide a network of safe, designated places at all county facilities. The program will initially be piloted at public safety stations, such as the LBPD’s downtown station, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s (LASD) Compton and Century stations, as well as the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s (LACoFD) Lynwood and Willowbrook stations.
“As the ultimate safety net, Los Angeles County has a responsibility to protect its most vulnerable children,” Supervisor Don Knabe said. “The Safe Youth Zone program creates a safe place for our youngest child sex trafficking victims to seek out help when they find themselves in a desperate situation.”
The police locations were chosen because they are close to a major hub for trafficking and because these were areas originally piloted for the county’s 2014 First Responder Protocol for Commercially Sexually Exploited Children—a victim-centered approach to dealing with child sex trafficking, according to Knabe’s spokesman Andrew Veis. He said the county fire stations were chosen because they were part of the Safe House program and are already familiar with how to respond to children who run away from home or a bully.
“Human trafficking has a tremendous impact on the lives of our youth,” LBPD Chief Robert Luna said. “This is a worldwide problem, not just [in] the county or the city, because none of us alone are as effective as we are working together.”
Luna said that within the last few years the department’s officers have investigated 54 human trafficking cases and rescued 60 minors. More than 200 women have also been referred to various services.
Michelle Guymon, director of the child trafficking unit at the county’s probation department, said the idea for the program stemmed from an incident about two years ago, during which a young person called Jessica Midkiff—a child sex trafficking survivor and current mentor—for help as she was escaping from her trafficker late one night.
Midkiff in turn called Guymon, who together guided her to safety.
“We were able to get the person on a three-way call and we talked to her and at that moment we asked her to stop and just look around because she was literally running and this guy was trying to find her,” Guymon said. “So she stopped for a minute and she said ‘I see a transit station,’ and so we said ‘go to that transit station and find a security guard or find a law enforcement officer’.”
The young person was able to find someone who Guymon and Midkiff could speak with over the phone and request that he provide the young person with security until law enforcement was able to respond.
“At that time, it was one of about three calls that happened within about a 10 day period of a time and I think that’s when we started to talk about, as a county, about what can we do when kids are literally on the street trying to seek some type of safe refuge so the Safe Youth Zone was kind of brought to be,” Guymon said.
County officials said placards announcing the program will be placed at the entrance of the designated facilities and bumper car stickers will also be added on public safety vehicles to spread awareness.
Midkiff said she hoped the program provides a new, effective way of reaching out to exploited youth.
“I remember when I was younger, and I was kind of caught in the middle of being exploited in so many different ways, that I wish there was something that was out there for me to [...] walk down the street and say ‘Hey, I can probably walk here and I can probably be safe,’” Midkiff said.
Midkiff was able to escape her exploiter who had “put a green light” after she refused to work any longer. As she ran away, she stumbled upon a shop owner who took her to her family, where a relative suggested she call 211, a number run by a nonprofit that provides access to health and social services for county residents.
“Keeping kids safe is a top priority for the City of Long Beach, and we greatly appreciate Supervisor Knabe collaborating with us to create Safe Youth Zone,” Mayor Robert Garcia said. “Our public safety departments will continue working with the County of Los Angeles and our community partners to combat human trafficking and protect our young people.”