When Wendy opened her front door on a cold winter day, a couple of years ago, she didn’t recognize the disheveled teen who stood there asking for help. The pretty redhead, whom I will call Emily (not her real name), described traveling to Southern California after meeting a guy on the Internet. Somehow her plans for a romantic two-week vacation had disintegrated into prostitution. Now, she had no ID, no money, and nowhere to go. And, she was scared.
My friend Wendy lives nearby and we talk often. At the time, though, neither of us realized that Emily was a victim of human trafficking. But this January during National Human Trafficking Month, we learned the truth.
A couple of articles about modern-day slavery in the local newspaper made me want to know more. La Veda Drvol, organizer of Mosaic She Inland’s “Walk Against Traffick” on January 10th, encouraged me to participate. As an incest survivor, later raped by high school bullies, La Veda not only wanted to increase awareness of human trafficking, she wants to give victims of sexual exploitation hope for a better life. At the event, involving the cities of Chino and Chino Hills, La Veda spoke from her heart.
“For every rat you see, there are a thousand you don’t,” she said. “Rats tend to scurry when a light shines. And, our light needs to shine into every dark corner, wherever human trafficking exists.”
When I stopped by the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition’s information table, Tobi Aclaro challenged me to check out the Department of State’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. It states that, “the past year, marked by the onset of a global financial crisis, has raised the specter of increased human trafficking around the world.”
A lack of economic opportunities is causing people to take greater risks than ever. Unemployed myself, I can’t help but wonder how all the promiscuity on television might compound the problems. That social climate, combined with the increasing need to earn money, may make young people even more susceptible to cunning human traffickers.
The TIP report states that “traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to exploit a person for profit, whether through labor exploitation—which claims the largest number of victims—or through commercial sexual exploitation.” Human trafficking and illegal arms tie (behind drugs) as the second largest criminal activities today. Globally modern-day slavery generates $32 billion a year in profits.
Deputy District Attorney Tamara Ross describes how she began to recognize the escalating problems in our community. In 2000, during a one-year stint with the juvenile division in San Bernardino County, California, Tamara did not prosecute a single case of juvenile prostitution. Reassigned there again in 2005, Tamara noticed a disturbing trend. “After about the second or third case, I began to wonder what was going on,” she said.
Reason told her that even the “fastest girl in my high school wouldn’t know how to engage in those activities.” Tamara began to read everything she could find on the topic until finally, one prosecutors’ magazine described minor prostitutes as victims instead of criminals. So she began asking her colleagues. “How are we helping these kids?”
Typically juveniles arrested for prostitution (a misdemeanor) were released on a citation and—once they showed up in court—given minimal, if any probationary supervision. “Rarely was any effort made to ascertain how the child was lured into prostitution or who was influencing her to continue. The attitude was as though the child was just an out-of-control delinquent who couldn’t be reigned in.” More was needed to help young victims, who were on the streets.
In early 2009, the District Attorney’s Office spearheaded CASE -- a Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation. CASE brought together public defenders, prosecutors, police officers, social workers, faith-based groups, children’s advocates and health-care workers. To honor National Trafficking Day, January 11, 2010, CASE held a special meeting with almost two hundred attendees. These people care enough that, in addition to their regular duties, they volunteer their services to address the human trafficking problem. CASE has no budget, but District Attorney Mike Ramos seems convinced that with the resources already in place, the organization can make a difference.
Tamara explained how simply training police officers can help. Most of the children in the court system are between the ages of 13 and 16, which automatically makes them victims. Now, when an officer arrests a minor for prostitution, protective services are offered. If the child is willing to take advantage of them, no crime is even reported. But resources are few, and many of the girls don’t want help. They’ve become convinced that their trafficker is the only one who cares for them.
Force, fraud, and coercion—the trademarks of human trafficking—do tremendous damage. They keep people in bondage; sometimes, in more ways than one.
Slavery survivor Maria Suarez brought many people at the CASE meeting to tears as she told her horrifying story. Like most 16-year olds, Maria was full of hopes and dreams when, in 1976, her family moved from Mexico to Los Angeles County. Soon after, a woman promised Maria a job cleaning and answering phones for an older couple. The woman convinced Maria to drive with her to Azusa, about 45-minutes away, without telling her family. Once inside the home, Maria was introduced to “a friendly man,” then he and the woman disappeared behind closed doors. While watching television, Maria began noticing extra locks on the doors and even on the telephone. Eventually the woman left without fulfilling her promise to take Maria home.
Within days, Maria learned that she’d been sold to the man for $200. He stripped away her clothes, and when a struggle ensued, knocked her unconscious. Then he raped her. Sexual, psychological, emotional, and spiritual abuse became routine. Threats and beatings made Maria fear for her life and the lives of her family. After five tortuous years, the man was bludgeoned to death by the husband of another potential victim. The murderer told Maria to hide his weapon under the house. And, she did.
Convicted of the crime, Maria was sentenced to 25-years to life. After more than two decades, she was exonerated and released from prison. A modern-day Joseph, Maria was sold into bondage. She was imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit. Now, God is using the evil of others for good as Maria works tirelessly to help people around the world. She realizes that the best way to protect them is to educate potential victims.
Many people are working together to abolish slavery. All that took for Emily was a caring person getting involved. Wendy encouraged Emily to call her parents and kept her safe until Emily’s dad could fly to Ontario to get her. The last Wendy heard, Emily was receiving counseling on her way to a better life.