SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - A new court program in San Diego Juvenile Hall will help victims of sex trafficking find their way out of forced slavery.
The RISE Court (Resiliency is Strength, Empowerment) will work with as many as 40 kids who have been victims in sex trafficking, giving them help to put their lives back together.
"We don't view them as an object to be used and abused," says District Attorney Summer Stephan. "We see them as whole human beings who need to be free to thrive in society."
Many of the kids come to the court because they commit other crimes as part of their role in the sex trade. After they go through the criminal system, they fall right back into human trafficking because they have nowhere else to go. Sometimes, it's their pimp who is waiting to pick them up outside of Juvenile Hall .
The court will work to find the underlying cause that drove the kids into human trafficking in the first place, and help them break the cycle.
"Some of them don't recognize themselves as victims or they don't see it as a problem or they don't think it's a big deal that they're involved in certain activities because they think it's normal," says Judge Carolyn Caietti, who will oversee the courtroom.
Human sex trafficking is San Diego's 2nd largest underground economy, behind drug sales. A recent study by the University of San Diego estimates it brings in $810 million per year.
Meanwhile, San Diego ranks in the top 13 of cities in the nation for human sex trafficking, according to the FBI. The average age that a child enters into the sexual exploitation industry is 15.
The USD study showed that at least 110 gangs were involved in the sex trafficking industry, and 85% of the pimps/facilitators interviewed were gang involved.
"Some of the kids are engaged in survival sex," adds Judge Caietti. "Some have been kidnapped. Some of them have had their families threatened and they feel they have to do this. And even if they want to get out there's no way they can get out, because the person that's manipulating them has a stranglehold on them."
At risk youth were particulary vulnerable to falling into the trade. 55% of the victims in the USD study were homeless. 28% of them were in the foster care system.
"We'll address this complex issue by finding whether it's a family need, an educational support need, a mental health, depression or trauma issue, a chemical addiction, whatever's leading them to this," says Stephan. "It (the court) uses a team approach that looks at the child from all angles as a human being to surround with services."
Success for the RISE Court will be a moving target. For some kids, the people involved say they may be able to help them get out of the system entirely. For others, the court will just try to make it so that they don't go back as soon as they would have.
More information about sex trafficking in San Diego and support programs for kids and parents can be found here.