Human trafficking isn’t just happening a world away. Nearly 300,000 youth in the U.S. are at risk of being sexually exploited, and according to local law enforcement agencies, it’s increasingly discovered right here on the Central Coast.
“Human trafficking is an issue anywhere with a freeway and motels,” said Santa Maria Police Lt. Paul Van Meel.
Human trafficking is a form of slavery involving victims who are either sexually exploited or forced to provide labor. In sex trafficking, pimps lure and trap girls and boys, men and women from all walks of life into an existence of prostitution and abuse that often ends in serious trauma or death for the victims.
“In some areas of California, sex trafficking is second only to gun trafficking and drug trafficking, but guns and drugs are one-time sales. A woman can be sold over and over again. There are young girls having to service 30 or 35 men a day. It’s just horrific,” said Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino.
California is one of the top four human trafficking destinations in the country, according to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office, and the Central Coast has been identified as a natural transit corridor for trafficking activity between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“Everyone’s seeing it: SLO, Santa Barbara, sheriff’s offices, local agencies. Anywhere there’s access to people that are traveling, it’s now a very common occurrence,” Van Meel said.
The advent of the internet paved the way for the rise in trafficking, particularly of youth who post their every feeling, activity and photo on social media for all to see.
“The whole concept of prostitution has changed a lot over the course of my career. The use of websites proliferated into the internet-based prostitution scheme that has overrun the old style of prostitution. It’s safer than walking up and down the street, more under cover,” Van Meel said.
Traffickers largely target girls, though boys are hardly safe.
“Traffickers target vulnerable youth. Maybe they have a poor family life where there’s drug abuse or mental health issues. It could be a wide range of problems. Predators will search social media, start reaching out with fake profiles, talking to these youths who are putting out too much personal information,” Van Meel said.
Statistically, victims of commercial sexual exploitation are likely to come from homes where they feel unsupported. Parents or guardians may serve as the traffickers, or the youth may flee the home only to fall into the clutches of other adults who exploit them.
“I have never seen a human trafficking victim who doesn’t have a history of victimization in their life. It’s a very difficult crime to investigate. It’s a very difficult population because they’re very distrustful of people,” Van Meel said.
A 2015 needs assessment highlighted 45 confirmed child survivors of sex trafficking in Santa Barbara County between 2012 and 2014. The numbers are possibly higher given that victims often live in fear for their lives, the lives of family members, or don’t understand their role as victims in unhealthy relationships, Patino and Van Meel said.
Yleana Velasco, victim advocate with the County of Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office, said vulnerability, like being a runaway youth, in foster care, in an abusive family situation, exponentially increases risk factors for human trafficking.
“Within 48 hours of a youth running away, a trafficker will approach them. Where are they going, sleeping, eating? There’s always a trafficker there willing to exploit those needs to get something in return,” Velasco said.
Eventually, the traffickers lure their victims into a meeting, then romance them into the trafficking lifestyle.
“They’re meeting people who are older and they think there’s something there that’s love or a relationship, and that’s not the case. Exploiters know how to groom, what to say, how to pick vulnerable individuals to go after. We see it in adult victims as well. It’s a cycle of dependency. They’re looking for that affection and love,” Velasco said.
“They can turn really evil really fast,” Van Meel added.
There is apparently no lower age limit for child sexual exploitation. Van Meel said it’s not unusual to find preteens targeted, and he’s seen children as young as 8 exploited.
“It’s less likely to happen to people who feel supported. It takes a community, everything in their lives, creating stability. When you can’t put that support into play, now we’re working against a pattern of conduct, severe disfunction, severe emotional fallout. It’s a very complicated thing to deal with,” Van Meel said.
Sometimes, the trafficked become the traffickers.
“We see juveniles who were once trafficked becoming adults and beginning to work as pimps for their pimps,” Van Meel said.
It’s a cycle that tugs at Connie Logeman’s heart. The Orcutt retiree is working with city and county officials, members of the faith community, concerned citizens and volunteers to develop Casa of Hope, a nonprofit safe house where sex trafficking victims can heal, grow and begin forging a new path in life.
“I don’t think any child, any person, should have to go through that. I cannot tolerate, can’t get my head around, abuse of any kind, but when you take children and pimp them out, how do you process that? How do you look at these guys? Where did that come from? What happened to them that they would treat other people this way,” Logeman said.
Emergency shelters are already in place throughout the Santa Maria Valley. Hope Refuge Inc., a Santa Barbara County-based nonprofit, has worked since 2013 to develop a full-time, short-term residential therapeutic program for 12- to 17-year-old girls who have been trafficked for sex. Junior League of Santa Barbara is in the final stages of opening a home for youth.
“Housing is one of the biggest issues we’re tackling. We’re looking at the long-term housing needs, things that are beyond shelter and emergency services,” Velasco said.
In 2013, the District Attorney’s Office established the Human Trafficking Task Force, and in 2016, the DA and Sheriff’s Office joined forces to secure a $1.34 million endowment to step up their efforts. Called the Enhanced Collaborative Model to Combat Human Trafficking grant, it's administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
The three-year grant is divided by the two agencies -- $740,737 to the Sheriff’s Office and $600,000 to the District Attorney’s Victim-Witness Assistance Program.
The grant helps pay for one dedicated full-time Sheriff’s Office human trafficking investigator and a specialized victim assistance advocate in the District Attorney's Office.
“Because it’s such a widespread problem, it takes a widespread collaborative community to address it,” Velasco said.