Opinion Columns & Blogs

Viewpoints: Help needed for victims of human trafficking

Every once in a while, we hear about something so horrible that we question whether it could possibly be true. After listening to a presentation on human trafficking at my church in Davis, I was overcome with shock and disbelief. I had been peripherally aware of this issue but assumed it was happening in far off, dark places only affecting people I would never know. I was wrong.

The more I learned, the more horrifying it became. The truth is, it’s happening here in the Sacramento region and often to society’s most vulnerable kids.

According to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, 320 kids have been rescued from sex trafficking in the Sacramento region over the past seven years. Ninety percent of these kids had some contact with the foster care system. Throughout California, documented cases show young girls – some as young as 12 – being forced into prostitution by pimps who kidnapped or lured them through a variety of nefarious means.

According to a 2012 report by the California attorney general’s office, human trafficking is the world’s fastest-growing criminal enterprise, and California is one of the nation’s top four destination states for trafficking humans. Because of its proximity to other large cities and major highways, Sacramento has become a hot spot for these activities.

When it comes to trafficking and prostitution, victimization of kids is the most horrific part and often the least understood. While people often assume that trafficking involves moving people from one place to another, the federal definition also includes inducing a commercial sex act by “force, fraud or coercion,” or inducing a child under 18 to perform a sex act for money.

Sacramento County sheriff’s Detective John Sydow, a member of a federal task force on child exploitation, told me that even many law enforcement officials fail to grasp the dynamics of child prostitution. “There is a common misconception that girls are doing this because they want to be doing this, and that they get to keep the money they make.”

Sydow says pimps routinely employ violence, combined with mental and financial manipulation, to maintain control of their victims.

Sex trafficking has become so lucrative that, according to the attorney general’s report, domestic street gangs set aside traditional rivalries to set up commercial sex rings and maximize profits from the sale of young women. The report describes domestic traffickers recruiting their young victims from high schools, foster and group homes, and malls among other locations.

The recently implemented Proposition 35, which significantly increased penalties for traffickers, was a step in the right direction. However, more work remains.

Under current law, even though an adult who hires a child prostitute has committed statutory rape, the child can be prosecuted as a criminal.

One recent bill that aims to change that is Senate Bill 738, by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. It would put minors picked up for prostitution in dependency court instead of delinquency court. The bill passed the Senate unanimously this summer but is on a two-year track in the Assembly.

However, decriminalization – if it happens – still leaves many of these girls with few places to turn to get out of this life.

In the absence of adequate legislative change and services for victims, churches, community organizations and some courageous individuals have stepped in to fill the void.

Leah Albright-Byrd, founder of Bridget’s Dream in Sacramento, escaped the world of trafficking after being exploited when she was a teenager. She credits her faith and church community for helping her find a way out. Now Leah and her team of Bridget’s Dream volunteers work around the clock to reach out to victims, offer services and a way out of exploitation. Since the average life expectancy of someone entering the life of sexual exploitation is eight years, her work, motivated by love and redemption, is literally saving lives.

While few are equipped to do the work of Leah and her organization, we can all do something. Primarily, we can be aware, alert and armed with the human trafficking hotline – (888) 373-7888 – in our cellphone, ready to report anything suspicious. For those with the means and a heart for it, adoption and foster care are powerful ways to limit abuse. Finally, we should all let our elected leaders know we care, and demand protections and services for the victims and tougher penalties – not just for traffickers, but for patrons whose demand fuels the sex trade.

In Sacramento, Republicans and Democrats quarrel over much, but one thing seldom in dispute is that government should be a safety net for society’s most vulnerable victims, particularly when these victims are children.