Who’s Going To Rescue Los Angeles' Missing and Abused Girls?
Los Angeles has a problem. A human sex trafficking problem. “People think it's not happening here, in the U.S. They say, 'In Thailand, those are true victims,'” says Tera Hilliard, the President/CEO of Forgotten Children, Inc (FCI).“ 'That chick on Figueroa is there because she wants to be.' ”
For the last five years, Hilliard has been at the helm of FCI, an organization that strives to minimize victim suffering caused by human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women and girls. She is not alone. Across the country, there has been heightened awareness of just how extensive the sex trafficking epidemic has become. With January recognized as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, Hilliard sees this as a prime opportunity to shed a brighter light on this humanitarian issue impacting tens of thousands of American lives.
“100% of the girls we've rescued have come out of the foster care system,” Hilliard shared. “When you don't have anywhere to go, where do you go? You go to the streets. It's a breeding zone for pimps and traffickers because no one is looking for you.” Sitting at Greyhound bus depot or a bare table at a McDonald's restaurant lobby, a pimp can easily spot a young, teenage runaway and is quick to offer her a warm place to sleep and something to eat. It isn't long before the victim will hear, “You owe me.” With no other option in sight, these girls-most targeted anywhere from 12 to 14 years of age- are forced into “the life” where they will remain for an average of seven years.
She's walking the streets and has on a plastic jumpsuit with a thong on. Her shoes are too big for her, and she's shuffling along,”... “She only has 20 seconds to talk to us.”
According to national data, children of color account for over 50% of all fostered youth, and at least half of them will experience homelessness—no family or community. Fostered Black children have the least access to resources and programs. In Los Angeles, the numbers are especially staggering—of the 56,000 people who are homeless, 5% are girls who are being trafficked. Through tips from law enforcement and the community, FCI finds these vulnerable young girls on streets throughout the greater Los Angeles area, from Long Beach to San Bernardino to DTLA. Most recently, Hilliard has focused the organization's efforts on Skid Row, where there have been widespread reports of homeless young girls being trafficked at alarming rates. “She's walking the streets and has on a plastic jumpsuit with a thong on. Her shoes are too big for her, and she's shuffling along,” shares Hilliard. “She only has 20 seconds to talk to us.”
Hilliard and her team of volunteers assemble mesh bags to hand to these girls that include a condom, lip balm, mints, angel pin, a nondescript FCI business card, and a “Jesus Loves Me” track. It's essential that the bags are kept simple, all part of an effort to discourage the pimp's ire. “We don't want her to get beat,” she explained. “Our safety and the girl's safety are priority, so we respect the space to coax the woman out.” Hilliard paused before continuing, “It's one thing to go and interrupt someone's life, but if you don't have a solution to the problem? Then you make it worse—you may as well leave her down there.”
The pimps are always watching, keeping a close eye on their most-prized commodities. By maintaining a “stable” of 5-7 teenage girls with each girl earning a daily quota of $500-$1000, they can take home thousands of dollars daily. A $100+B industry, sex trafficking has quickly become one of the most lucrative criminal enterprises, coming in second only to drug trafficking. In Los Angeles, a city overrun by substantial gang activity, the vast majority of sex trafficking is controlled by area gangs. Fearing gang retaliation, many of these women are unable to see a way out of the life.
Back in 2013, Hilliard was hard at work as the Program Manager for Great Beginnings for Black Babies, an organization that seeks to reduce the high rate of incidents in Black pregnancies. While in prayer one day, God came to her. “Today is the launch of your ministry, based on this scripture, Isaiah 61.” Hilliard opened her Bible and read, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor of the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” She paused. “I followed that call.”
Not long after, she noticed a prostitute crossing the street and was drawn to her - the prostitute needed love and to feel love. Hilliard and a small team of women she knew from her previous job began hitting the pavement, knocking on doors, asking community organizations and businesses to help support her efforts, but unfortunately, they weren't making much traction. It wasn't until a few months later in 2014 when she met Pastor Paula Daniels, the founder of FCI, and was welcomed into the organization. “As women, when God calls you to do something, and you feel ill-equipped, he equips you and then he causes you to be noticed by people who see you. He begins to elevate you.”
Initially, Hilliard questioned God about why he chose her for this cause—she herself had never been involved in the streets, and prostitution was an issue she wasn't very familiar with back then. “Then, [God] reminded me. My mother was a prostitute, a drug addict. My sister was a prostitute drug addict. I never was on the streets, but as women, we exchange sex for favors—that's trafficking.” From there, she became more aware of the vastness of sex trafficking, how she could make a difference and got to work.
Privately funded, one of the biggest challenges FCI faces is a lack of financial support. They must fight tooth and nail for income and donations. Sometimes disappointed by the lack of resources, Hilliard commits much of her time to connecting with community leaders, service organizations, and prayer to ensure FCI's needs are met. “I have a unique opportunity to create change in the lives of women that impacts generation upon generation,” said Hilliard. “And for that, this, to me, of all the things I've ever done is the most meaningful because I have the foundation of the Word of God to stand on to do it. It's also the hardest because not everybody gets it.”
Another major hurdle FCI faces is addressing cultural misconceptions about the pervasiveness of the abuse, drawing awareness of how embedded it has become in our culture. Many strip clubs and adult entertainment events are overrun by trafficked victims. The infamous Player's Ball, founded in 1974 by Pimp Don Magic Juan and inspired by the 1973 blaxploitation film The Mack, is attended by active pimps throughout the country who have been thriving in the sex trafficking industry for decades. Throughout the years, it has been coined a “ball for child molesters,” has been inundated with negative press due to several pimps being arrested for employing underage prostitutes yet continues to attract the likes of hip hop's largest stars.
In Hollywood, child actors frequently find themselves at the mercy of desperate parents angling for exposure and sleazy agents on the hunt for a quick buck. “Parents who are looking for stardom for their kids, what price are you willing to pay for your child to be a star?” questions Hilliard. “Media portrays women as hoes who just want to trick, and if they're kids 'they're just fast.' I remember coming up, you were fast. 'Get off that man's lap!' 'Well, why does that man have me on his lap?' We put all the responsibility of being safe on the kid. We should recognize the signs.”
Throughout the years, Hilliard has seen her fair share of horror stories. There was the girl who was elementary-aged when her grandfather began sexually abusing her, always remembering to give her a few dollars when he finished. By the time she was being trafficked as a teen, being paid for sexual favors was viewed as a loving transaction, not abuse or trauma. Another girl from Tennessee had been abused by her uncle starting at age 10 and was outfitted with an IUD at 13. “She came [to California] when she was 16. From 13 to 23, she had never been to the doctor or had a PAP smear,” says Hilliard. After FCI rescued her from the streets, she began complaining about pelvic pain. Upon inspection, the doctor found a 10-year old IUD embedded in her uterus. The leaking copper was making her ill.
For all the heartbreak, there are success stories. Hilliard remembers one girl, in particular, Jessica. A foster child since she was 2 years old, Jessica had nowhere to turn when she ran away from her group home at 18 and was easily nabbed in an empty McDonald's lobby by a woman and her family. For the next 6 months, she was housed on an abandoned military base and serviced military personnel via Backpage ads. By a stroke of luck one day, Jessica found herself alone and unattended. She ran until she found help who contacted San Bernardino PD. Jessica's bravery broke up an entire human trafficking ring. In the four years since, Jessica has found independence, is managing her mental trauma (has since been dually diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), and maintains a balanced life. “We are her next of kin,” Hilliard says with a tear in her eye. “She's one of the people when we need live testimony. We take her with us.”
Personal balance. With so much of her life dedicated to saving young women, Hilliard admits achieving balance within her personal life can become challenging. For her, it's essential to understand the calling. “If God has called you, then that means he called you to assist in this work. I'm the vessel he wants to use to accomplish this goal. He never told me to bear the brunt of it.” It is mandatory for the entire staff to meet with the therapist on-hand at FCI's safehouse to ensure mental health. Hilliard also receives guidance from mentors and her family. Lastly, her stronger prayer life and quarterly meetings with her Pastor, Geremy Dixon, also helps keep her accountable and aligned. “Tera is truly a leader in this community,” says Pastor Dixon, lead pastor of Center of Hope Church in Inglewood. “The work she's doing and lives she's transforming are incredible.”
Having rescued hundreds of girls throughout south LA and lower California, Hilliard is ready to take on the rest of America. Moving into 2020, she has big plans. “We're going to take territory. We're going to go into cities and set up safe houses!” she shares excitedly. “Girls are on the streets for various reasons. Coming out of foster care, they age out. They don't have any resources. They don't realize that they have independent living programs.”
Once the girls have reached independence, Hilliard wants to ensure her girls are economically empowered. She plans on helping them build wealth through equity. “It's going to take about five years [to reach independence through our program], and then we can introduce homeownership to her. Every city has a first-time home buyer's program,” explains Hilliard. “You can have a condo at 26, and can pay for it, and it's yours. We're doing it for people and for kids that never thought they could do it. That's my goal.”
This January 25th, FCI is hosting “Breaking the Chains,” a community festival and car show to honor Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Partnering with the City of Lynwood and the Compton Human Trafficking Task Force, Hilliard's aim is “to bring the community together, raise awareness, and have a good time!” On hand will be vendors, raffles, food, games, health screenings, free giveaways, and a car show. Hilliard hopes to equip the community with people and services in the event they experience any sort of traumatic experience, homelessness, or trafficking.
Hilliard admits that this work has exposed her biases. “We say we love people until we get somebody that's unlovable, and then we're dismissive. Or we say 'protect the sistas' until it's time to protect them, and we don't show up.” There's been too much talk, too many town hall meetings that have led nowhere, and too many girls being abused. Something has got to change. “Caring is more than talking. It's action.”