Sad and shocking was the feeling for the Hanford police department as they learn their small California town of just over 55,000 was dealing with underage prostitution, by a 16-year old girl.
Jelinajane Bedrijo Almario of Hanford was arrested in May of last year for pimping out younger girls that she found on social media and through friends.
Now, a few days after turning 18, a judge in Kings County Superior Court sentenced Almario, as an adult, to 13 years in prison for the crime of pimping and human trafficking. The charges also included sending threatening emails to a family member of at least one of the girls and making terrorist threats.
Luckily the shocking plan to prostitute the four girls she recruited, who were only 14 or 15 years old, only lasted a few weeks before the police stopped it. Hanford detective Richard Pontecorvo said the plan was to post these girls on several prostitution sites and then bring the girls to local motels to meet their clients.
This case may be over, but it still leaves many questions and concerns. Even Mr. Pontecorvo said, “It was a huge eye-opener for us.”
A big misconception that this sad case exposes is how kids enter the life of prostitution. Most assume these kids are kidnapped or taken advantage of by an older man with a stereotypically creepy vibe, but that is not how all kids enter this life.
A study showed that many children are not sold on a street corner, or anything like it is on TV, but recruited by family or friends, or people who they thought were their friends. Seeing this as a person they trust helping them out in return, and being naive as to the dangers, many kids go along willingly.
With the promise of making money for “just having some fun,” these minors are entering the prostitution lifestyle at very young ages. One study found that when adults tried to rescue these kids from this life, many fight back, not believing they need to be saved. Some see their actions as part of “a curious and fascinating lifestyle”.
There is a population of teens who struggle with self-confidence that are targeted by manipulative pimps who are their peers, like Almario. The Polaris Project, an organization fighting against human trafficking, points out that many times the peer pressure to perform sex acts, or believing that this is the only thing they can do, leads to kids going along.
Sheila White, Survivor Leadership Coordinator at Girls Education & Mentoring Services (GEMS), detailed her experience as a kid who was caught up in a prostitution ring:
“I too was in a place where I thought being in the life was all I was ever capable of doing. In fact, I never saw myself as a victim of anything and I believed that I would always be defined by my past. It wasn’t until I came to GEMS at the age of 16 that my life and self-perception began to change. As time passed, I began to see a difference in myself; I began to believe, confidently, I could actually have a life after being in the life.”
Hanford’s Pontecorvo agrees, “These people are great at locating kids with low self-esteem and trying to be their friend, and then it obviously changes once they started working for her.”
There is a social media component to this also. Many kids are spending numerous hours on social media and preening for their camera phones for attention. A study recently estimated teens spend over a hour a week taking pictures of themselves.
The study goes on to estimate millennials spending, on average, seven minutes per selfie. That’s seven minutes of taking the selfie, editing it, realizing your lipstick looks bad, taking the picture again, editing the new one, and then deciding on a caption.
Google reported that there were over 24 BILLION selfies uploaded in 2015. Remember that is uploaded, not taken. Who knows how many attempts it took to get the “perfect” picture that they were willing to share of them being “natural”.
Whether they admit it, or not, that is a lot of time kids are spending seeking unhealthy approval and attention. So when pimps are out here promising attention, and cash, the allure is too great for many.
There are so many outlets for kids to get attention that is unhealthy, and they carry around the tool to get that instant fix in their pockets. With all of their friends around and doing it, it seems so innocent.
Realizing their young audience wanted even more ways to express emotion online, instead of in person and face-to-face, Facebook gave it’s users more options to like posts. So now, kids can check every second to see if friends gave their post a heart, like, thumbs up, smiley face, etc. If these kids spend 7 minutes trying to please their world, and they only get one like, that is devastating to their fragile egos.
“In my experience, girls who repeatedly post selfies struggle with low self-esteem,” says Dr. Weber. She is concerned about the danger that self-esteem become tied to how much others like their online posts. Looks on the internet are becoming more important that who you are in reality.
“Girls in particular are socialized toward seeing themselves as lovable and worthwhile only if others value them,” Dr. Weber points out, and “selfie culture is a way for this tendency to go into overdrive.”
No longer are kids spending time looking into someone’s eyes to experience real human emotion, and develop true personal connections. Instead, teens are addicted to getting “harmless” cyber affection. If that does not work, those who prey on their insecurities are swooping in. Now it is no longer harmless attention, but girls finding themselves caught in underage prostitution rings.