Santa Clara County Rejects Contract Providing Services To Trafficked Children

Opponents were concerned that Starlight, as a behavioral services provider, would not sufficiently meet the needs of sexual assault victims.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted on Oct. 5 to reject a $435,257 contract providing services for commercially sexually exploited children.

Over a dozen people spoke out against the contract with Starlight Community Services, which provides mental health treatment for children and young adults.

Opponents were concerned that Starlight, as a behavioral services provider, would not sufficiently meet the needs of sexual assault victims. About a dozen organizations sent letters saying that state law requires certified sexual assault advocates to work for a rape crisis center.

“There are no examples provided of non–rape crisis centers that qualify as certified sexual assault agencies anywhere in California,” said Sharan Dhanoa of the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking.

Representatives from Starlight and its partnering organizations argued that counselors had received sufficient training, pointing out that Starlight had provided services for commercially sexually exploited children throughout the state since 2016. Christine Raco, a therapist at Starlight, said she received 40 hours of training annually and “have been highly trained in CSEC [commercially sexually exploited children] behaviors, risks, and therapeutic approaches.”

Lindsey Mansfield expressed concern that contracting with a provider with statewide certification for therapeutic interventions, but not sexual assault services specifically, would lead to disruptions in service for victims. “As a CSEC survivor myself… I would not have wanted to engage with multiple entities. Having a single confidential advocate from day one creates a bond and rapport that can’t be duplicated.”

Several opponents of the contract also said the contract would create a division between survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and other survivors of sexual assault, who would be treated at rape crisis centers. They said that certified sexual assault advocates could provide support outside of therapeutic interventions, like informing victims of their legal rights, accompanying them to court, and being with them during a forensic medical exam (also known as a rape kit). Under the proposed contract, Starlight would provide mental health services for trafficking victims, but not be required to provide these other services.

Past requests for proposals had required state certification for sexual assault services provision, but the request for fiscal year 2021 had changed that to a recommendation. Supervisor Otto Lee questioned why the certification requirement had been removed.

Jorge Montes from the Office of Contract Management said the county had changed this regulation after conducting market research and consulting with statewide offices, and that this process would allow for the county to accept proposals from multiple vendors. He added that Starlight was in the process of obtaining statewide certification.

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg spoke in favor of the Starlight contract, noting that Starlight had come highly recommended by a county evaluation panel and Cal OES and that it had a history of providing CSEC services in other counties. Several county offices, including the County Counsel, Contract Management, Family and Children’s Services, and Gender-Based Violence Prevention, had recommended the contract with Starlight. Ellenberg said that Starlight had received the greatest number of points out of two bids for the contract.

Citing concerns over deviating from current best practices, Supervisor Cindy Chavez proposed a motion to reject the Starlight contract and negotiate with the next-highest-ranking vendor, Community Services. Lee seconded the motion. Chavez had previously requested that the county partner with Community Solutions and YWCA, which operate the two rape crisis centers in Santa Clara County, to provide CSEC services.

Supervisors Joe Simitian, Mike Wasserman, Lee, and Chavez voted for the motion, while Ellenberg voted against it.

Jean Yi is working on a bachelor’s degree in Human Biology and a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford University. She reports on police, prisons and policy, with a special interest on stories that focus on the ways health and society intersect. Originally from South Korea, she has lived in California since early childhood and has reported from the Bay Area, Orange County and now Los Angeles. She enjoys all kinds of journalism, from culture writing to data-driven investigations.

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