Briefing Report: Addressing the Problem of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Human trafficking, which includes Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE), is a $32 billion per year worldwide industry. After drug trafficking and counterfeiting, it is the world’s most profitable criminal activity. Although previously believed to be an international problem, current statistics show that human trafficking is increasingly a domestic issue. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates that 100,000 children are sold for sex each year within the United States, and as many as 300,000 children are at risk of becoming victims of CSE in the United States. In the past two years, California’s nine human trafficking task forces identified 1,277 victims, seventy-two percent of whom were from the United States.
- From the February 2013 report entitled, “Ending the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: A Call for Multi-System Collaboration in California”

While some may consider the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) a problem that occurs primarily in foreign countries, unfortunately this is not the case. Within the United States, California has emerged as a magnet for CSEC. The FBI has determined that three of the nation’s thirteen High Intensity Child Prostitution areas are located in California: the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego metropolitan areas.[1]

What exactly is CSEC, who are its victims, and what can be done from the social services side of the equation to address this problem?


According to federal law, CSEC occurs when individuals buy, trade, or sell sexual acts with a child. Sex trafficking is “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act.” Children who are involved in the commercial sex industry are viewed as victims of severe forms of trafficking in persons, which is sex trafficking “in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.” A commercial sex act is “any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.”[2]

Pimps and traffickers target vulnerable children and lure them into prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation using a combination of psychological manipulation, drugs, and violence. Any child may be vulnerable to such a person who promises to meet his or her emotional and physical needs. A trafficker/pimp’s main purpose is to exploit the child for monetary gain. Often traffickers/pimps will create a seemingly loving and caring relationship with their victim in order to establish trust and allegiance. This manipulative relationship – sometimes referred to as “trauma bonding” – tries to ensure the youth will remain loyal to the exploiter even in the face of severe victimization.[3]

The children who fall prey to these exploiters are frequently those with prior involvement with the child welfare system, such as through child abuse report investigations and placement in foster care. Other victims should have received child welfare services and protections but never gained access to the system, and are instead treated like criminals and funneled into the juvenile justice system.[4]

Many see the manner in which juvenile victims of CSE are treated as a major problem. According to Kate Walker, the author of the Child Welfare Council Report, “Rather than criminalizing these children and funneling them into the juvenile justice system, California's child welfare system, which is designed to protect and serve children and families who experience abuse and neglect, is the more appropriate system to support exploited children.”[5]

California’s Efforts

California legislators have strengthened efforts to combat human trafficking, especially of minors, during the past decade. Several bills have passed that increase penalties for traffickers, protect victims of trafficking, and direct funds towards services for victims. Recently, California voters passed the California Against Slavery and Exploitation (CASE) Act, or Proposition 35, by an overwhelming majority. The CASE Act increased criminal penalties for CSE, as well as strengthening existing laws against online sexual predators.[6]

Despite these efforts, California is viewed as lagging behind other states. A 2012 evaluation of the State’s CSEC programming and practices conducted by Shared Hope International, an international organization devoted to the eradication of sex trafficking, gave California a grade of “F.” According to Shared Hope International’s Protected Innocence Challenge (PIC), “California law provides very limited options for prosecuting demand, and victims of child sex trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) offenses are provided with little protection under the law as victims.” However, the passage of the CASE Act has addressed several of the shortcomings identified by the PIC.[7]

New Report

On February 28, 2013, the National Center for Youth Law released the previously mentioned new report on CSEC which was authored by Kate Walker on behalf of the CSEC Work Group, established under the auspices of the California Child Welfare Council.  The entire report can be found here:

The overarching recommendation of the report is to convene a multi-system oversight and implementation body, the CSEC Action Committee, which would be charged with advancing the report’s nearly 40 recommendations.  These recommendations run the gamut from improved data sharing to cross-system identification of CSEC victims to better integration of the systems that serve CSEC youth. With respect to potential legislation, the recommendations include an assessment of the adequacy of both the child abuse reporting requirements as well as currently available jurisdictional statutes, the development of a comprehensive CSEC State Plan, and decriminalizing the CSE-related actions of youth based on their status as crime victims.[8]


At least two bills addressing CSEC are currently advancing through the Legislature. SB 114 (Pavley) extends by three years a Los Angeles County pilot project that applies a comprehensive multidisciplinary model to address the needs and effective treatment of commercially sexually exploited minors who have been arrested or detained by local law enforcement. SB 738 (Yee) provides that a child who is a victim of human trafficking or sexual exploitation is within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.  The bill also requires the California Health and Human Services Agency to convene a new interagency workgroup to develop a State Plan to Serve and Protect Sexually Exploited and Trafficked Minors.

Additional legislation is likely as the Child Welfare Council is expected to discuss and adopt the recommendations contained in its report at its upcoming June meeting, and the Senate Human Services Committee recently held an informational hearing on this very topic. As members review CSEC-related bills, they may wish to consider whether the legislation will actually reduce incidences of CSEC and help the victims in an efficient manner without creating a new state bureaucracy.

For more information on this report or other Health & Human Services issues, contact Joe Parra, Senate Republican Office of Policy at 916/651-1501.

[1] Kate Walker, California Child Welfare Council, Ending The Commercial Sexual Exploitation Of Children: A Call For Multi-System Collaboration In California (2013)
[2] National Center for Missing and Exploited Children fact sheet, March 2010
[3] Ibid.
[4] Kate Walker, California Child Welfare Council, Ending The Commercial Sexual Exploitation Of Children: A Call For Multi-System Collaboration In California (2013)
[5] National Center for Youth Law press release, February, 28, 2013.
[6] Kate Walker, California Child Welfare Council, Ending The Commercial Sexual Exploitation Of Children: A Call For Multi-System Collaboration In California (2013)
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.