Written by Keri Gee Semmelman, The Raise Foundation
Have you seen any teenagers who seem to be taking much greater interest in their own looks all of a sudden? For example, their once chipped nails seem to always be nicely manicured. Their hair is now always nicely groomed. They are spending much more time away from their home and family. They may seem especially mysterious all of a sudden. They have devices like a new fancy cell phone they didn’t own before. They seem much more tired and are going late to school – or missing school all together. While some of these traits may just be a sign of growing up, others may be quite the contrary. The child’s life might be in danger.
Child sex trafficking is happening all throughout Orange County, and it’s often before the child even knows what’s happening or going to happen to them. ADVISORY: Parents, teens, schools, and the entire community need to be aware of the many warning signs, and understand that commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC) is a local issue, and that there are ways the community can help to keep children safer.
According to Michelle Heater, Program Director with Victim Assistance Programs for Wayfinders (formerly CSP, Inc.), the average age of victims in Orange County is around 15 years old. One of the most recent cases filed was of a victim that was 13 years old at the time of her victimization, whose case was prosecuted when she was 14 years old. Heater further explained that victims of child sex trafficking are both male and female and foreign and domestic. In 2016 there were 75 victims of sexual exploitation identified in Orange County, more than doubling 2013 data when there were 35 identified victims.
While human trafficking of minors and adults for labor and sex has been going on for hundreds of years worldwide, it’s only recently that federal and state laws were created specifically to address the perpetrators who commercially sexually exploit these children.
Due to the hard work of advocates and agencies, the sexual exploitation of a child has now been deemed as child abuse. In the past the crime was not viewed as child abuse, yet rather a form of prostitution and perceived that the child was a willing participant. According to Heater it took a lot of movement to get laws to where they are today to allow for law enforcement and social services to specifically look for it, screen, sentence, and punish the perpetrators. The Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, which Wayfinders co-leads with the Anaheim Police Department, was established in 2004 to help educate the community and to work collaboratively with all levels of law enforcement, the County, schools, nonprofits, and communities to better understand the issue and ultimately help the victims and for law enforcement to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes.
Detective Jason Forgash of the La Habra Police Department, a child abuse investigator who presents internationally on crimes of violence, shared that perpetrators flock to Orange County because they know there is money to be made here. The weather is very desirable, and it is a tourist destination for business travelers from all over the world. “Since criminals exploit opportunities, sadly, Orange County becomes a natural environment where people are bought for exploitation,” said Detective Forgash.
In addition, Orange County has numerous transportation hubs including ports, highways, and airports. “This makes it easy to move people to satisfy the demand,” shared Katherine Ahlswede, the former Human Trafficking Education and Awareness Manager for the Junior League.
Another contributing factor to the volume of CSEC victims in Orange County, according to Detective Forgash, is parenting – or the lack thereof. He said children can get drawn out of their environments more easily when they lack attentive parents or guardians. Child victims have shared with him that they just wanted to feel special and cared about.
Heater also explained that criminals are finding human trafficking as a much more lucrative business than drugs and weapon trafficking. Whereas both drugs and weapons trafficking is a one-time sale, a perpetrator can traffic victims multiple times with much less monetary investment.
So who are these child traffickers and their associates? Heater noted they are both men and women, of various ages, nationalities, and socio-economic backgrounds. In some cases, family members were victims of sex trafficking. Surprisingly, some criminals are known to publish online “how to” guides and books spotlighting their successes that may also recruit other criminals.
Child sex traffickers are often very tech savvy and are experts at luring in local children and others from all over the world to come to Orange County through relatively common means such as the internet and social media. Dating sites and social media make it easier for perpetrators to look at a teenager’s information online. These criminals know exactly what they are looking for when recruiting youth and adults to be their victims. And as Heater added, “Because people share so much about themselves online these days – it is not hard for the criminal to zero in on whom to recruit. Number one, they look for children who are in need of an adult figure to pay attention to them and youth that want to be accepted.”
Making matters worse, even with a 24-hour response unit led by law enforcement, the exploited children are, in certain cases, brainwashed by the perpetrator so the victim has been trained on how to respond to law enforcement and social workers. The victim often asks, “When do I get to see my boyfriend and/or daddy again?”
The abuse they’ve been subjected to impacts their processing of information – and of the grave reality of the situation – and don’t feel they need to be helped. As such, law enforcement and social workers have learned to meet each victim where they are at currently. When law enforcement and social workers do get the victim to leave their perpetrator, it’s sometimes with only the shirt on their back. In addition, there is a great focus on helping these victims which may include finding them resource families (formerly referred to as “foster” families).
It’s important to note that there is some good news of hope both on the federal and state level and within communities. There is an increase of services for victims of human trafficking and victims of domestic violence. Orange County’s CSEC Steering Committee has raised awareness with its “Be The One” campaign that includes a resourceful website, awareness banners on OCTA Access buses, and rallying community members to prevent, identify, and report the commercial exploitation of minors. The Junior League of Orange County hosts an annual Human Trafficking Roundtable where community leaders talk with the community at-large, with the next roundtable scheduled for May 2018. And probably the best news: families are talking about the crisis and educating their children.
While law enforcement agencies, the Social Services Agency (SSA), and nonprofits continue to respond to CSEC victims, prevention and other actions go a long way.
So what can you, whether or not you have children of your own, do to help?
- Educate and talk about the CSEC crisis with your family, friends, and colleagues. January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, so it’s a good time to start if you haven’t already.
- Pay attention to the children around you and take notice of whom they are interacting with. If all of a sudden they are spending time with a lot of new people and are not readily sharing information about those people that is worth exploring more.
- If you are a parent/guardian, Detective Forgash encourages you to provide your children with, “…well-intentioned, kind, caring attention.” He adds, “If they don’t get it from you, they may very well look elsewhere for it.”
- Explain to your children why posting personal details about themselves online can be very dangerous.
- If you see a child (even a very young child) walking alone during the day when they should be in school or even late at night, experts say it is best not to approach the child as it may put them (and you) in even more danger as their perpetrator may be nearby. Instead call your local police department immediately.
- Validate children. Remember that whatever is happening right now in their life is the biggest deal (e.g., a fight with a best friend, failing a grade in class, being on the receiving end of drama and bullying online). Heater says, “We adults are so quick to downplay because of our own perspective and our busy lives. Realize their lives are being shaken up in that moment. Validate it. Don’t reason it away. Don’t dismiss with, “Oh it will be okay tomorrow.” Instead, help them work through it. Then help them see what they walked through. This can help them understand how to work through issues going forward.”
- Praise the teachers, coaches, caregivers you know who are also dedicating their lives to the well-being of children. Sometimes, these role models are the ones giving children the much needed attention they hunger for and deserve.
- Should you or any children you know see or hear anything that causes you/them to think human trafficking may be going on – anything suspicious, report it! Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888 or your local police department. Your call will be routed to the county you are making the call from.
- Help CSEC victims by donating food, clothes, and/or funds. Go to: https://wearewayfinders.org. They accept tangible goods and funds to provide clients with assistance that is very much needed that isn’t covered in other ways.
- Attend the Junior League’s next Human Trafficking Roundtable in May 2018.
- Go to www.betheoneoc.com to learn more how you can help and for additional resources.
Please “Be The One” to Help Out.