HAYWARD (KPIX) -- The number of reported human-trafficking cases in California has skyrocketed 86 percent since 2012.
Social services agencies are struggling to provide help for a growing number of victims, many of them children. But a KPIX 5 investigation reveals that sometimes such help can backfire with tragic consequences.
It started off as any other morning, with Nitza's daughter Anjelique going off to school. But the troubled 12-year-old had a different plan. This was the day she was going to run away from home.
"I get a call from her school stating that she ran off the bus as soon as she reached the school -- and was gone," said Nitza.
Anjelique's grandmother made fliers, posting photos of the missing child all over the Bay Area. "I was going through anger, confusion, just fearing the unknown," said Nitza.
Police ended up finding Anjelique but they didn't bring her back to her mother. Instead they dropped her off at Alameda County Social Services' assessment center in Hayward. It's where children at risk are first taken to safety. But Nitza says, for Anjelique, it was the opposite.
The family says Anjelique made friends with a teenage girl on that very first night at the shelter, who took her to a nearby motel. That's where the family says she first got lured into the sex-trafficking pipeline.
"It doesn't surprise me," said Christopher Watson. A counselor with Bay Area Women against Rape, Watson works with sexually exploited children and has helped Anjelique through her struggles. "This is not just California, it's everywhere," he said."From our experience exploiters will go to places where they know that there are kids who are more susceptible to being exploited."
He says, even though the county keeps the assessment center's location a secret, pimps know exactly where it is and could potentially use children inside to recruit others.
"A lot of children when they are commercially and sexually exploited they are groomed by the exploiter to essentially become what we call a peer recruiter," Watson said.
Over several days and nights we videotaped activity at the motel that Anjelique was taken to. It's a busy place. We saw young women arriving in the evening. Others lingering at the doors of rooms. We watched various men visit those rooms. While others escorted women into cars, whisking them away only to bring them back hours later. And there always seemed to be someone on the lookout.
Up the street at the assessment center, no sign of activity. But Anjelique's grandmother is convinced exploiters are lurking in the shadows. "So you think there are pimps that are waiting outside the assessment center?" we asked her. "I believe so. Otherwise how could it happen to Anjelique you know? She doesn't know the area, She has never been by herself outside."
"Ultimately state-law-wise, we can't physically prevent them from leaving," said Jodie Langs, director of policy and communication at the West Coast Children's Clinic, a private company that runs the assessment center under contract with county Social Services.
Langs says peer recruitment is a problem and the staff has strategies for stopping it.
"If we have youth come in where there's a concern that they are already being exploited and they might recruit other youth, our staff will staff that child, work with that youth separately, monitor interactions with other youth."
"This is a girl whose life changed drastically because of where she stayed for a very short amount of time and how close a nearby motel was, pulling her into that pipeline, so she might've been better off not going to the assessment center. What do you say to that?" we asked Langs. Her response: "That's a very good question. And I think that's why it's really important that we develop these alternative resources so that the assessment center is not the only option."
But for Anjelique it was the only option. And that, her mother says, is unacceptable.
"Why would you put an assessment center literally walking distance from the stroll? From these hotel rooms? I don't know whether it's the law or whatever but that needs to change," said Nitza.
Meanwhile, like countless other sexually exploited children, Anjelique's pimps got her addicted to heroin. She's now in a rehab facility.
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