Sacramentans often boast that their city is close to everything. That attribute, however, also helps make the River City a hot spot for sex trafficking.
From June 19 to 22, FBI task forces and local authorities in Fairfield, Fresno and Sacramento recovered nine underage girls working as prostitutes and arrested seven suspected pimps as part of an FBI initiative called Operation Cross Country VIII, which recovered 168 children nationwide. Out of 54 FBI field offices in the United States, Sacramento saw the sixth-highest number of recoveries.
Terri Galvan, executive director of Community Against Sexual Harm, a nonprofit that works with victims of sexual exploitation, said Sacramento’s location is convenient for sex traffickers, who commonly transport victims along interstates 80 and 50. Additionally, Sacramento hosts numerous conventions, which can bring to town people looking to pay for sex.
“There are a lot of things that come together in this area,” Galvan said. “We are in close proximity to Nevada and Oakland and other places on a circuit.”
The FBI initially launched Operation Cross Country in 2008. This month’s operation resulted in the largest number of rescues yet in the Sacramento area. The nine female victims ranged in age from 15 to 17. Special agent Gabriela Betance said agents found a few of the girls working as prostitutes on the streets or near truck stops, but most were discovered on websites advertising escort services. Betance said the Internet gives pimps many ways of contacting potential prostitutes and makes it easier for clients to find commercial sex.
Agents could not comment on specific cases or release the names of suspected pimps. Betance said most of the victims were originally from Central California. Some had been reported missing by their families.
Derek Stigerts, a Sacramento Police Department detective, said one of the three girls taken into custody by his agency was sent to juvenile hall because of an earlier warrant. The others were returned home.
Stigerts said he is not optimistic that the recovered victims will stay off the streets. He no longer talks about “rescuing” victims of child sexual exploitation because in his experience, most eventually return to prostitution.
“They don’t want to be confined to home,” Stigerts said. “However bad we think things are for them out there, it might be even worse at home.”
With so many victims from broken homes, arresting them and holding them in juvenile hall is often “the safest thing,” said Gina Swankie, a Sacramento FBI spokeswoman. Agents could not say how many of the six victims recovered in Fresno and Fairfield were sent to correctional facilities.
Kate Walker, a staff attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, focuses her work on the sexual exploitation of children. Walker said children recovered through initiatives like Operation Cross Country VIII end up in the penal system not because juvenile hall is the best place for them, but because protective services often lack programs and resources designated for trafficking victims.
But because of $19 million in the budget Gov. Jerry Brown signed Friday, that practice could change next year. The money will be used to establish services for victims of sexual exploitation through California’s child welfare programs.