During nearly six years on the bench at Compton Juvenile Court, Commissioner Catherine Pratt saw scores of children facing prostitution charges. She 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. "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 story. 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.

It was an eye-opener.

Pratt, who has degrees from UC 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 Proposition 35, which mandates harsher penalties for those convicted of the crime, including requiring them to register as sex offenders.

The federal grant allowed Pratt to hire a team of court advocates to sit with the children through hearings and trials, help with living arrangements, and facilitate activities and outings. In some ways, they function as stand-in parents, offering support in the absence of family.

The voluntary program has 75 participants, likely a small representation of the children victimized in a crime that is increasingly facilitated by the Internet, Pratt said.

The cases are tremendously complex. Some of the children are addicted to drugs. Others have been tattooed on their faces and necks, an act of branding that pimps use to control and protect what they regard as their property.

The violence and manipulation is acute — there have been occasions in which pimps attend hearings or wait outside the courtroom to collect girls the second they are released from custody, Pratt said.

Yet the commissioner sees some encouraging signs. More children are self-identifying as trafficking victims, and more are agreeing to testify against their pimps despite the safety risks. There have been a handful of convictions. In addition, Pratt is getting cases referred to her by judges and lawyers who are becoming better at identifying trafficking cases.

It is not unusual for the commissioner to take phone calls late at night or during the weekend when a child is stranded somewhere or hospitalized.

Occasionally, she finds herself at a restaurant with one of her case subjects, an attorney and a probation officer. It's on odd way to celebrate a 15th, or a 17th, or an 18th birthday, Pratt conceded. The children would prefer to be with family, if they could.

Still, it is better than no celebration at all.

MEGAN O'NEIL is a former education reporter for Times Community News, North and current graduate student at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She can be reached at megan.oneil.06@gmail.com.