26 – Lessons from the Prosecutor’s Desk

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Prosecutors play an important role in raising awareness about human trafficking issues and serving victims. Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak interview Tamara Ross from the office of the San Bernardino County District Attorney. Tamara shares the lessons she’s learned in working with juveniles and what others in the legal profession may want to consider to help end human trafficking.

Key Points

  • Within the Juvenile Court System, the main goal isn’t to punish or sentence children, but rather to rehabilitate and protect them.
  •  Voluntary placement is a challenge with young victims because oftentimes they won’t volunteer due to emotional trauma, trust issues, or simply young age.
  • With a lack of comprehensive victim services, it’s difficult to have willing witnesses to prosecute their pimps.

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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 26, airing on April 13th, 2012. You’re listening to the ending human trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:28] And I’m Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:30] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, in the last episode we had summarized the conference that we had this year in the Global Center for Women and Justice.

Sandie [00:00:45] Ensure Justice 2012 is over.

Dave [00:00:47] It is. And So, if you missed it, go back and take a listen to episode number 25, because that leads right into our topic today and our guests today. And I’m going to let you get us started on that, Sandie. Actually, before we do that, let me jump in with the contact information here, for those of you who maybe are listening for the first time and wanting to learn more about how you can study the issues and educate yourself and your organization about the issues, that will help you to be part of our team to end human trafficking. And as you’re listening today, if you have questions for us or for our guest, please give us a call. You can reach us at (714) 966-6361. And we will respond to you and we will address them on a future show. And of course, you can always email us at the Global Center for Women and Justice at gcwj@vanguard.edu. And that’s a great way to reach out to us with comments or questions. And so, Sandie, I think it’s time for us to introduce our guest today.

Sandie [00:01:56] So, in the last podcast, I talked about the panel on Saturday afternoon at Ensure Justice 2012 that was moderated by Judge Doug Hatchimonji here in Orange County. Carissa Phelps our victim who became a survivor and now an advocate was on the panel. And then we had two prosecutors, Theresa Lourey from Las Vegas and Tamara Ross from San Bernardino. And Tamara was raised in Tallahassee, Florida. You will hear that when she talks to us and has a degree in journalism from Florida A&M and also, a JD at the University of Southern California Law School in Los Angeles. And she began her career as a deputy district attorney for San Bernardino County, prosecuting a variety of misdemeanor and felony cases. But since 2005, Tamara has been assigned to the juvenile division, where she developed a strong interest in cases involving sexually exploited youth. Her insights into the issue and vocalization about the lack of treatment resources for children arrested for prostitution activity led to the development of the San Bernardino County Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation case, a multi-agency coalition with the primary tasks of ending sexual exploitation within the county and providing effective restoration options for its victims. Tamara, welcome to Ending Human Trafficking.

Tamara [00:03:32] Thank you very much. It’s wonderful to be here.

Sandie [00:03:35] And you were a fabulous guest on our panel. And we want to thank you now for participating in Ensure Justice this year.

Tamara [00:03:44] Oh, it’s my pleasure. It was a great opportunity to be there and to interact with the other panelists and audience members.

Sandie [00:03:53] Well, when I first met you, I was at an event in San Bernardino, and then later you participated in a subject matter expert panel. And both times we talked about who that child is that you are prosecuting. And I always thought the prosecutor was the bad guy until I met you. Just, you know, I watch too much law and order. I’m sorry.

Tamara [00:04:19] On law and order, we are supposed to be the good guys.

Sandie [00:04:21] That’s right. You’re right. That’s right. So, tell us about your job and how you developed this interest in sexually exploited youth.

Tamara [00:04:35] As a prosecutor assigned to the juvenile division, of course, all of my cases involve juveniles. So, we see juveniles who commit a variety of crimes. I had actually been a juvenile prosecutor when I first started in 2000. And then I was reassigned to that division in 2005. And that was the first time that I saw girls coming in charged with loitering for prostitution. And the first one or two I really didn’t pay any attention to except to have that same thought So, many people think, like, what is she doing, you know, out on the street? That’s weird. But I just thought of it like any other case, OK? You’re breaking the law, there has to be a consequence. It’s just a six-month misdemeanor, So, go home and be on probation or whatever little thing that we do. But about the third one came through and it was a 16-year-old girl. And for some reason it just hit me like, this is really wrong. What is going on where a 16-year-old child is out on the streets in a not nice part of town. And I just started thinking about myself at 16 and other girls I knew at 16. And I know that the stereotype is that, you know, these girls are fast. At least that’s what we used to say in the 80s growing up and I was thinking to myself, you know, I know a lot of fast girls, they weren’t charging for sex. They were sleeping with the football team or whomever, you know. That was the rumor about them. But I didn’t know any child who just jumped up one day and said, I think I want to be a prostitute. I think I want to go to the worst part of town where all the crack heads and people are, and I want to just walk them down the street without any safety net, without anybody protecting me, and I just want to sell my body for money. And when I thought about it, I just thought about being a 16-year-old girl. It just hit me that that’s not what’s going on here. And I thought I used to think that all of the movies and the stereotypes about pimps were just exaggerations. That was how it was in the 70s, and it wasn’t like that anymore. But I started doing a little research. It didn’t take me more than a day to realize, well, she’s being pimped. And that’s what’s happening here because there’s no way she could expect to be safe out there. When I start talking to her parents and then we were seeing more and more kids being arrested for this. And as I talked to the families and some of their attorneys, the defense attorneys were allowing me to talk to the girls. It was just blatantly clear to me that these girls were in trouble, that this was not sexual promiscuity on their part, that this was a whole different type of thing. And they were being violated. And which led me to my next thought, well what are we doing about it? Because in juvenile court in California, and I’m sure it’s all throughout the United States, our goal isn’t So, much to punish children as it would be for an adult, but it’s to have them address their wrong and then to have them take accountability for their wrong, but also, to rehabilitate them because we don’t want them to come back. And So, our biggest goal is truly rehabilitation. And since these children were being arrested and cited, they will come into court for loitering for prostitution. I needed to be concerned with, what are we going to do to help them get out of being prostituted? And, you know, of course, it took me a while to come around to the full scope of what was really happening, viewing them fully as victims and as being prostituted versus prostituting. But, you know, that was a process. But at the same time, I still immediately thought, what are we doing to help these children to recover? And that’s where the feminist or womanist in me roared up because we had So, many programs for boys and for the gang entrenched children, which they need that, we need that. But it just felt to me like I could tell that we weren’t doing anything. We weren’t doing anything for rehabilitation for these girls. I started calling around saying, OK. I know they’re on probation to you, probation officer X, but what kind of counseling is this child getting? What steps are being taken to protect the child from who’s pimping them? Have you been looking into who that person is? And it was like no one even knew what I was talking about. And So, I knew then that, you know, something had to change. And I started being very vocal in my office about it and with the judge. And the judge at the time listened to me and So, did my supervisor. And that’s basically how at some point more and more people started changing their opinion and viewing the children differently and we created the coalition with my boss at the D.A., Michael Ramos. So, that was the process, and it’s still a process, I’m still learning.

Sandie [00:10:15] And I think that you’ve identified So, many really important aspects of this understanding who this child is and what their history is. I love it that you’ve identified the purpose of our juvenile justice system is rehabilitation, not the same as our criminal justice system, which is punishment. When we were in a conversation early on in this, you described a day when a 12-year-old that you were prosecuting turned around and asked for your card. Tell me about that.

Tamara [00:10:53] This girl, wow, we hadn’t had someone that young before. She was living with her grandmother, and I immediately started asking questions of her grandmother. And her mother came to court, and I found out a lot about the family just talking to them. I wasn’t allowed to speak to the child. I’m the person who’s prosecuting them. That’s really not the right word to use. But I’m using it because that’s the one that we’ll all understand. But I’m the one who is affecting the charges against the child. So, their attorney is allowed to speak to them, the defense attorney, but I’m not. So, anyway, I found out a lot about her from talking to her family, and at some point, her attorney had a different goal in mind for what should happen than I had in mind. And I set hearings to argue about it and it was a really long, drawn-out process. So, basically, I think about three or four times this child heard me tell what I believed to be her story, even though I hadn’t really spoken to her directly. She heard me tell the court that this is a protection issue. This is a child who has truly been neglected by her mother and is lost and is trying to find that love. But she’s been looking for it in the wrong places and she needs help. We’re trying to help her and we’re trying to protect her, but she’s been an emotionally neglected child. And I started telling what I thought to be her story. It was a moment for me where I had to build a lot of courage because some of those times her mother and grandmother were sitting there. And I knew that some of the things I was saying would hurt, particularly her mother. But it needed to be said. By the time the whole thing was over, I think the court found what I was asking the court to do. I don’t even remember at this point, So, much has happened since. But in the end, the child asked her attorney, ‘May I speak to Mrs. Ross?’ and her attorney gave her permission, gave me permission to speak to her. She was in custody, So, I went into the holding area, and I said ‘hi’, and I asked her, ‘can I give you a hug?’ She said, ‘yes’. And then she said, “I feel like you’re the only one who understands me. And I really want to thank you for what you’ve been saying.” And she just really was very appreciative. And she asked me, can I call you, you know, if I’m having problems? Because she really felt like she was being honest, that she felt that she would run away from a placement in which she has, unfortunately. But she and I connected at that moment, you know, and I guess it really felt rewarded because I felt like the things that I was saying, I was just hoping that I was right. You know, that I was reading between the lines of what was being said to me. And for her to confirm that I was right, helped me to feel like I’m on the right direction here, I’m going down the right path. And even though I’m making arguments to ask for something she says she doesn’t want, in the end, she was appreciative. It’s like, you know, children, they say they want their freedom. Right? But if you give them too much freedom, they feel like you don’t care about them.

Sandie [00:14:24] How many kids do you have, Tamara?

Tamara [00:14:25] I have two. The younger they are, the more they really want to be protected.

Sandie [00:14:35] So, then this brings up the other aspect of this issue. You’re dealing with kids, but what happened to her pimp?

Tamara [00:14:43] Her pimp was prosecuted. He was one pimp that she was found with. But this particular guy’s in prison now for over a hundred years. So, over a hundred-year sentence.

Sandie [00:14:57] OK. So, the process of putting him away required that she be able to be a witness, right?

Tamara [00:15:08] Yes. I didn’t handle that case, though. I coordinated with the attorney in our office who would prosecute the adults. And, you know, we did a lot of coordination in that. Her attorney was on board, you got to have all everybody working on this aspect.

Sandie [00:15:23] Oh, that collaboration word again, huh?

Tamara [00:15:25] Yeah. And actually, it’s been a while. So, that first conversation with her that I talked about, that was before we had a pimp, I believe. I could be wrong. But she’d come through a couple times. She’s been in and out, but the second time that she was arrested it was with a pimp, or the pimp was arrested right after that because they found where he was.

Sandie [00:15:57] And if I remember correctly, I believe there’s been some discussion about how difficult it is to prosecute the pimps, because this is what the community says, “well, why don’t we put the bad guys away?” Well, we have to have witness testimony. And if we don’t keep the girls secure, they’re gone because So, many of them run when we place them and then we lose the case. Is that correct?

Tamara [00:16:27] Right. I mean. We’re not talking about kids who were molested at their uncle’s home in the uncle is arrested, and So, they feel safe in their home, and So, they’re around. We’re talking about a lot of these girls, not all but a lot of them, have issues at home. And they run away, they aren’t stable emotionally. And so, in the United States, if you charged them with a crime, you have to have a witness to the crime, or you have to have evidence. And in this type of case, the only evidence is the person who says I was pimped by this man. I mean, truly there can be some other cases that are brought with other evidence. If there’s a lot of online evidence or a lot of records to show. But the vast majority of these cases you’re not going to have those records and the strongest evidence is going to be the child explaining what happened and explaining to the jury the whole case. I mean, of course, we’ll have other evidence to corroborate the child, but you need the child witness as it’s part of our constitution. If someone accused you of a crime, you have a right to face your accuser. So, we can’t prosecute most of these pimps without the aid of the child. And then, you know, we don’t want to harm the child emotionally. So, then there’s even that. There’s that, well, even if the child is at home or stabilized in a place where they can testify, is it something that we want to have the child do, or is the child willing to testify? But for the vast majority of them, unless they’re stabilized, you’re not going to have a prosecution because they’re going to disappear before it’s time to testify. Because for one, they’re afraid. Of course, they’re afraid. And why would you testify against someone who, you know, has the power to really hurt you?

Sandie [00:18:48] And that then becomes the place where our dialog is So, complicated because if we don’t provide really good victim services, we’re not going to have good witnesses So, that we can put the bad guy away.

Tamara [00:19:07] And that is truly at the heart of the matter. I mean, really, our county, at least the people who matter in our county, the people who actually handled these cases in our current district attorney really are at the point now where we don’t want to have to use the criminal justice system. We don’t want to have to use the police or the courts to put terms on the child, to make the child stay and be rehabilitated. But that’s the best option we have right now. We don’t have a truly concerted full wrap-around type of victim service available. There’s not a place where I can send the child, where I know the child will be safe and the child will get services that are good and geared towards her specific needs. That is not a court situation. Well, I take that back. There are voluntary places a child can go, The Children of the Night, and a couple of others.

Sandie [00:20:21] Can you explain the complication with a voluntary placement?

Tamara [00:20:25] Well, again, we’re talking about emotionally disturbed children who have gotten some taste of freedom as well. They’re not volunteering, most of them do not volunteer to go someplace where there’s structure, there are adults, and they have to follow the rules. You have to have a psychologist explain to you why that is the case, but that just the case. A lot of them aren’t going to volunteer when they feel like they’ve been manipulated and brainwashed So, much that they feel that what they were doing was a taste of freedom. I mean, to me, a pimp’s rules are still rules. You know what I mean? You’re still living under rules. You’re being told that you can’t come back home. You can’t eat. You can’t take a bath. You can’t sleep unless you have slept with 10 men tonight. You know, or if you’ve brought back So, much money tonight. They’re still rules, but for some reason, these girls feel like that’s freedom. And going to a voluntary placement where there are rules, where they can’t have boys or men over, or they can’t just leave when they want to, they have to stay there on site. That’s not something most volunteer to do, even when their safety is threatened. Some do, don’t get me wrong. We’ve had some go voluntarily and do very well. But the vast majority do not. So, that leaves you with, you have to try to protect the child. We have a statutory mandate to protect the child as law enforcement, we do. Now, there are a lot of social service people who don’t. Of course, if you work for children protective services or children and family services, you do. But I’m just talking about your average person, the average member of a church who wants to help. They don’t have a mandate to protect the child, but I do. So, when someone tells me, well, you should just let the child go and when they decide to rehabilitate and then be there for them. That’s no, that would be against what the state requires me to do and my own, I don’t want to say moral fabric because I don’t think either way is immoral, but it just goes against my own. If I have some power to protect this child, I’m going to use it.

Sandie [00:22:59] And I think, you know, Friday night when Jeremy Kohomban from New York City’s Children’s Village, when he talked about that, he really made it very, very clear that these kids have had their trust violated. So, why should they trust us and say we’re going to take care of you, come and stay with us, or do this program or that program. They’re not going to be easy to work with.

Tamara [00:23:31] That’s a very good point.

Sandie [00:23:32] And he told us prevention isn’t working, So, we are obligated to protect our kids. And I think it is more than just a legal mandate. I don’t think it’s too strong for you to use that idea of a moral compass.

Tamara [00:23:50] But you know why I hesitate? Because I know people, I know victim advocates who have said and will say, I mean, you can see it in movies who actually go out of their way to protect children, but then they give the child the choice to leave. You know what I mean?

Sandie [00:24:07] Yeah, but the kids, their brains aren’t done. Remember, we’ve talked about that already.

Tamara [00:24:12] Right. I’m just saying, I don’t want to judge people too harshly and say that’s immoral for you to let that child walk out the door knowing what she’s going to do. But for me, I thought in my moral fabric, I will be the mama bear. And I will say, “you are still a child, and as long as you’re a child, I have the right to secure you. It’s my duty and my obligation.”

Sandie [00:24:33] I like that.

Tamara [00:24:33] And since I’m in the law, since I have the law helping me to do that, then I can do that. I can detain the child.

Dave [00:24:40] Tamara, I’m really struck by the leadership that you’ve shown in the capacity for what you do. I think that there’s the stereotype probably that, you know, prosecutors care about getting wins and winning cases. And I’m really struck by your leadership and the love that you show to care for children while working within the scope of the law and your legal requirements. And I’m curious that if other prosecutors are listening to this, what advice would you have for others in the legal profession to really be able to certainly work within the scope of the law requires, but to really look at this from a caring standpoint toward children?

Tamara [00:25:26] You know, being a prosecutor in the end, if this is a job that you do. And it wasn’t just like a steppingstone that you do for a few years and you want to get out. But if it’s a job that you really care about, it really boils down to people who care about victims. So, when you’re prosecuting an adult for committing a crime, it’s not. Yes, you see the prosecutors railing against the accused murderer, or the robber, or the burglar. But they’re railing because they’re the voice for the victim. And the voice for the state to say we’re going to hold you accountable for victimizing people. And gratefully, under our juvenile laws, it’s a very clear mandate for us to care about the child’s best interests. The child who has come before the court for violating one of the laws, we have to care about the best interests of the vast majority of what our conversations are about in court. Most of what we do is, you know, having the child and talking to the attorney about what crime they should admit or what the punishment should be. The punishment/rehabilitation aspect is vast majority of it, not what the charges are, or to whether or not they should admit. So, I think that. Number one, again, it comes back to your own moral fiber. If you are a prosecutor, or any attorney and you care about victims of crime, then the law is right there to help you to use in order to effectuate the best result. And it’s just a matter sometimes because I understand that sometimes the culture where you are may not support the feelings and emotional feelings where you would like. For instance, I felt like, wow, I wonder how my boss is going to react when I tell him I think that we should be doing more to protect the children that we’re prosecuting. But my boss was very supportive. You know, of course, we’re supposed to rehabilitate these kids. And if the probation department isn’t doing that, then we need to try something different. And I must say, San Bernardino County Probation Department has totally changed and really grabbed this issue as well. And they’ve really done a great job to try to help these children. But in the end, it takes the attorney to have that more backbone to say this is just what I think is right. And you find the person within your office who can support you. You know, you bring it up in conversations over lunch or someplace where you think it will go over better, than not in the middle of court. Then you find those who are going to support you and go with it. Luckily for us in California, the San Francisco district attorney and the Alameda County District Attorneys, they really led the way 10, 15 years ago on this. So, there are other examples that as a prosecutor, one can turn to convince the other prosecutors that this is within our realm. This isn’t defense work; this is our work. So, I don’t know if that helps. There’s So, many attorneys come from So, many different backgrounds. But as a prosecutor, the law is on our side to help these kids. It just takes changing the perspective. I mean, I read a Dallas sergeant facet that once wrote an article and he said, we prosecute child molesters all the time. You have a 15-year-old girl and her grandfather molested her. Does have lewd acts on her. We immediately look at him and we say, what a dirty, dirty old man, we’re arresting him, we’re going to protect her. But now, if you find out that it wasn’t the grandfather, it was the neighbor. And he left $50 on the bedside table after the act was over and she took it. Then all of a sudden now we’re looking at her like she’s got a problem and we’re not looking at him as much like, oh, he’s a John. Some misdemeanor, you know. And now look at this dirty girl. And that one analogy really helped me to say, wow, you know what? She’s a victim of crime. We prosecute child molesters all the time and protect their victims. And you know, they’re a child. So, you can’t hold a child responsible for this sexual act against them, even if they do ask for money or accept money, you know, for it. That shouldn’t even be relevant because a lot of children do take candy and gifts, etc. from child molesters. That’s how they win them over. You know, that’s the grooming process.

Sandie [00:30:47] Exactly. The grooming process. And again, we go back to child development and recognize that these kids are in a place of development, that they’re not equipped to make those kinds of choices.

Tamara [00:31:03] Thirty-year-old women, you know, aren’t really always equipped. I mean, I have friends who in college were debating, you know, not should I take money from a man. But, you know, hey, I might want to make some extra money. I wonder if I should go be a stripper. People debate it all the time in their own minds. Grown women. What level of intimacy they’re willing to give and not give for different things? So, for a 15-year-old child or younger to have a pimp come a long, shower her with affection or care and say, hey, you already had sex. So, why don’t you make money from it? It’s a stupid girl who doesn’t make money from it. That’s an easy logical line for her to follow. Here’s a person who’s suggesting it, who she respects, who she admires, and he’s not going to look down on her for doing it. So, you know, it’s not illogical in that sense, but what he doesn’t tell her and what a lot of women don’t realize when they go down that line, or children don’t realize is the spiritual and emotional toll that that type of exchange takes.

Sandie [00:32:17] Our time is up. Tamara, I can’t believe it’s gone already. We’re going to have to have you come back So, we can talk about some more of these issues and get updates. I appreciate your leadership, your voice, your advocacy, and your commitment to ending the commercial sexual exploitation of children in San Bernardino. But I think your voice will reach way beyond San Bernardino. Thank you So, much.

Tamara [00:32:44] Well, thanks for having me. It’s really fun.

Dave [00:32:46] And Sandie and Tamara. Boy, just what a great example of a conversation that we should be having more of and have more people. I just hope So, many people can hear this conversation today and hear Tamara’s perspective and her experience. And I want to thank folks who have already been online and visited us on i-Tunes and left a comment about the show So, we can get more coverage of this podcast on i-Tunes and have more people find out about this issue. If you’ve already done that, thank you So, much. If you are listening for the first time or maybe you’ve been listening for a while to the show and it’s been helpful to you. We’d love to hear your comments on i-Tunes. Just visit i-Tunes to do a search for ending human trafficking. And you can find us. And if you’d leave a comment for us, we would really appreciate it. It will help us to reach more people to hear this important message, not only this message today, but in future episodes that we’ll continue to hear. And of course, you can always reach out to us with comments or questions about this show. And the best way to do that is to give us a call at 714-966-6361. Or you can always email us at the Global Center for Women and Justice. And that email address is GCWJ@Vanguard.edu. And of course, Sandie, we are housed under Vanguard University of Southern California. So, thanks to Vanguard for helping sponsor us as well. We look forward to seeing everyone again in two weeks. We want to thank Tamara again for being here today. And thank you, as the listener for listening to us, we hope to reach out to you online. And thank you for studying the issues, being a voice, and helping us end human trafficking. Take care, everybody.

Sandie [00:34:34] Bye.

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