By Claudia J. Gonzalez
Photo By: Claudia J. Gonzalez
MERCED, Calif. — Community members gathered this week for a forum on sex trafficking in the Central Valley, which experts say is a growing problem across the region.
Wednesday’s forum at the Civic Center in downtown Merced was organized by Atwater’s St. Nicholas Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. The event featured the film “The Trafficked Life” by Bakersfield filmmaker Michael Fagan, followed by a panel of law enforcement personnel and local community leaders.
“Someone chose to take advantage of and violate us,” said Courtney Baldwin of Merced County’s Human Services Agency (HSA). Baldwin, who had been trafficked as a youth, spoke about how the experience puts youth at a high risk for homelessness, incarceration, and mental illness. “What I’ve been through, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
California is home to three of the top cities for human trafficking in the country: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. But, as Fagan’s film shows, the problem isn’t limited to larger, metropolitan areas.
“The Trafficked Life,” set in Bakersfield, shares the stories of survivors like Diana Cisneros, who was sex trafficked by her father beginning at the age of seven. The film gives viewers a glimpse of Bakersfield’s trafficking underworld and also highlights efforts by advocates who are combating the issue and offering services to victims.
Authorities say there are parallels in how perpetrators traffic youth across the Central Valley, adding that the problem is often “hidden in plain sight.”
Detective Joseph Henderson of Merced’s Disruptive Area Response Team (DART Unit), which responds to trafficking cases, says the area off of 16th Street from S to V streets is frequently used by traffickers. But he says that even knowing this, it can be hard to detain those responsible.
“Unfortunately, we do not have many statistics, because victims do not come forward or do not want to talk,” said Henderson, adding that this makes prosecuting pimps and ‘Johns’ difficult as victims often recant their statements to police.
According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice, sex trafficking has become a $32 billion dollar industry globally and one of the fastest growing crimes in the world. Experts estimate the average age of children entrapped by traffickers is around 12-14 years old.
A study released last week by the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown University and the advocacy project Human Rights Project For Girls notes that traffickers will often target young girls in the juvenile justice or foster care systems.
The report, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline, cites a 1998 study that showed that 56 percent of young girls in California’s juvenile halls experienced one or more incident of sexual abuse. It also highlights the fact that all 50 states currently treat minors who are victims of sex trafficking as perpetrators, putting them at greater risk of continuing to be trafficked and further trauma.
The report’s authors urge lawmakers to reauthorize the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which has not been reauthorized since 2002. The law would, among other steps, make funds available for more trauma informed prevention and treatment programs for youth victims of sex trafficking.
In Merced, authorities are already beginning to move in this direction.
Last January, HSA and Valley Crisis Center joined forces with local law enforcement to combat trafficking in Merced by, in part, treating the girls and women they detain as victims rather than criminalizing them.
Merced Police have also begun cracking down on prostitution rings and have made several arrests in recent months, resulting in some convictions of individuals preying on teenagers.
In April, Samuel L. Packard, 32, a pimp, was sentenced to 11 years in prison and ordered to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life by a Merced County Superior Court Judge.
Speakers at Wednesday’s forum stressed the need for more awareness and greater community involvement in combating the prevalence of sex trafficking.
As part of that effort, the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin has launched the Tour Against Trafficking, an 18 day, 750-mile bike tour designed to connect communities around the Central Valley around this issue, as well as raise funds for victim services.
The Tour is slated to begin October 2nd and will make its way to Merced County on October 16th. The twelfth leg of the tour will take off from Atwater with an 18.5 mile bike ride to Turlock. For more information on how to get involved or to sign-up for the tour, visit http://touragainsttrafficking.org.
If you believe someone is a victim of trafficking, please call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1 (888) 373-7888 or visit www.acf.hhs.gov/trafficking.