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On Education: Shining a light on human trafficking

February 08, 2013

During nearly six years on the bench at Compton Juvenile Court, Commissioner Catherine Pratt saw scores of children facing prostitution charges. The 1980 Glendale High School graduate made little progress on the cases — they came from impoverished, dysfunctional families and cycled through again and again.

“It was very disheartening and, frankly, I wasn’t looking at it the right way at the time,” said Pratt, also a product of Glenoaks Elementary and Wilson Middle schools. “I was frustrated with them. I kept saying, ‘Why are you doing this to yourself? It is a really bad choice.’”

Then, two years ago, a girl came into Pratt’s courtroom with a particularly harrowing account. She had been kidnapped and held against her will. Long Beach police officers corroborated the story — the child was found locked in a room where she was being sold to paying customers.

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It was an eye-opener.

Pratt, who has degrees from U.C. Berkeley and USC law school, immediately began conducting research. She soon realized that she was seeing a sort of modern slavery — human trafficking cases in which children were being exploited under extreme levels of coercion and force.

“If you ask them — and I had asked them — that is not what they say,” the commissioner said. “They say they are with their boyfriend, they say they are doing it because they want to. Frankly, the first five or six times you interview them that is what they will say. I took it at face value.”

Today, Pratt heads a three-year pilot program designed to address the trafficking of domestic minors in Los Angeles County. It is funded by a nearly $1 million federal grant, and is running concurrently with a complementary effort overseen by the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

As part of the program, Pratt presides over the STAR court — Succeeding Through Achievement and Resilience —– which operates every Tuesday out of South Central Los Angeles and is dedicated entirely to trafficking cases. Objectives include reducing the amount of time children spend in custody, decreasing the number of runaways and reducing the number of repeat offenses.

Her work represents a broader, growing awareness of human trafficking issues in California. In November, voters passed Prop. 35, which mandates harsher penalties for those convicted of the crime, including requiring them to register as a sex offender.

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