Simi Valley Soroptimist Club Sponsors Human Trafficking Workshop: “I Will Not Be Sold”

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By Tim Pompey

For many of us, human trafficking seems far removed from our world and our children. But with traffickers employing sophisticated recruiting techniques, particularly through the use of Internet technologies, trafficking’s influence is as close as a computer or iPhone. What’s more, some children may be involved secretly without any knowledge by their parents.

Such was the message shared by a panel of specialists on Thursday, January 10 in an event titled “I Will Not Be Sold,” held at Santa Susana High School Performing Arts Center in Simi Valley.

How bad is the problem of human trafficking? According to statistics provided at the meeting:

  • 45.8 million people are enslaved worldwide
  • Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry worldwide, second only to drug trafficking
  • Human trafficking generates an annual revenue of $150 billion, with $99 billion of that coming from sex trafficking.
  • The top three countries involved in trafficking in the United States include the U.S., Mexico, and the Philippines
  • The average age a teen enters sex trafficking is between 12 to 14 years old
  • Many victims are runaway girls sexually abused as children
  • Three out of thirteen FBI identified high intensity child prostitution areas are in California. They include San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego

The event was sponsored by Soroptimist International of Simi Valley in recognition of Human Trafficking Month. The message was straightforward. Trafficking is a reality in Ventura County and it presents a clear and present danger to young men and women of all ages, all socioeconomic backgrounds, and all races.

“I remember when you first started to hear about these statistics,” said Shannon Sergey, founder and CEO of Forever Found, an organization that supports the prevention, rescue and restoration of child trafficking victims. “You hear about these things, like 45 million people around the world right now are enslaved, with 25% of those being kids. You hear about the fact that right now, sex trafficking is a $99 billion industry a year, and you start to think, is this real? And then, to bring it home more locally here in Ventura County, we’ve learned that right now, at any given time, about 50% of the female youth in juvenile hall have been sexually trafficked either for short or long term.”

Sandy Schmid, the chairperson of the event, has been active in this cause for more than 11 years.

She believes it’s a topic that seems particularly appropriate for her Soroptimist Club.

“We’re an organization who cares about things that happen to women and children,” she said. “We’re very active in the community, and because I’m very active in the fight against human trafficking, I decided to take it over as chairperson.”

The purpose of this event was to help educate the local community about the realities and dangers of trafficking. “We wanted to help people understand and to be more aware of what’s going on around you. See something, say something.”

Nick Odenath, a detective with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office assigned to the Special Crimes Unit conducting human trafficking investigations, described some of the difficulties law enforcement encounters in fighting human trafficking.

For instance, in the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, currently there are only three full-time trafficking investigators.

“That’s a problem,” said Odenath.

Up against a large-scale industry, Odenath is engaged in education to appeal to the community for help.

“We need help on the law enforcement side,” he said, “and some of that starts with education personnel.”

On the other hand, he praised the support for victims of trafficking here in the County.

“The caveat to that is that we have absolutely wonderful victim advocates in this county,” he stated.

In other words, if you can find them and rescue trafficking victims, there are local resources available to help them.

Trafficking here in Ventura County tends to travel largely along the 101 to 118 corridors right through Simi Valley and on to Santa Barbara. In addition, sex trafficking is happening in many hotels along this corridor as well as at bars and massage establishments.

“A lot of the activity that we see comes from Los Angeles County because it is a hub for a lot of this type of activity,” he explained. “But we’re also seeing people come from Northern California, like San Francisco and Sacramento. We’re even seeing people fly in, traffickers with their victims, into LAX or Northern California and stopping in Ventura County.”

Why Ventura County? As Odenath noted: “There’s a lot of demand here. This is an affluent county. There’s a lot of money here.”

And with traffickers charging anywhere from $120 up to $200 per visit, it’s easy to see why the business end is so attractive.

Andrea Haney is the Ventura County Senior Deputy District Attorney who handles human trafficking cases in Ventura County. Caitlin Kearns partners with her as the Victim Advocate for Ventura County District’s Attorney’s Office.

Haney handles the processing and paperwork for the case filings. Kearns handles victims within the legal system and follows through with them until their cases are resolved, which may take months or even years.

Haney may file charges for sex crimes, pimping, and pandering. She may also bring charges against the actual customers or the ones who are involved in the trafficking. Other charges may include kidnapping, burglary, and criminal threats.

Kearns usually meets the trafficking victim in jail and starts to build a long-term rapport with them.

“We as advocates have to manage expectations in kind of how this is going to go,” she said. “Typically, victims have had only a negative impact with law enforcement. They’ve only seen it from the other side. I take that role upon myself to explain to them what can go on from here.”

Kearns said it’s important for the victim to understand that this process is a “marathon and not a sprint.”

“All of this is just knowing I’m there,” she declared. “I don’t care about what you’re doing at this time. I want to be there for you when you need me.”

For Haney, a major challenge they deal with is the use of computers, cell phones, and other types of technology.

“It feels like we are behind the curve a couple of steps, monitoring all the websites, being able to get into everybody’s phone,” she explained. “And if we don’t have a cooperative victim, the cases can be very difficult to prosecute.”

Still, while the cases Haney files may be challenging, she is optimistic about the future of legal case management for human trafficking.

“Fortunately, the law is changing very rapidly in this area, in recognition of the importance of this topic in our community,” she said. “Every day, it feels like we are being given more and more tools in the courtroom.”

The featured panelist for the evening was Rachel Thomas, a trafficking survivor and director of Sowers Education Group.

Thomas, who grew up in a loving upper-class family in Pasadena, was a junior at Emory University in Atlanta when she was first approached in a club with an offer to go into modeling. After some lengthy discussions, five weeks of modeling gigs, and a contract she subsequently signed, she discovered that the modeling agent was a trafficker who threatened her and her family if she did not cooperate.

“I was too scared to go to the police,” she stated. “Initially, there were a whole lot of threats, a lot of intimidation, a lot of physical abuse and psychological abuse that you think of when you think of trafficking.”

When she was caught by the Atlanta police ten months later, they gave her two options: “They told me I could go to the station, and I could possibly be a victim, or they’d put a warrant out for my arrest as an accomplice to a trafficker.”

In order to avoid being charged, she became involved in undercover work. Eventually, when that became too dangerous, so she left Atlanta and returned home.

It was a painful moment for her when she finally confessed to her family. They had no clue what Thomas was into. In fact, they had paid tuition for her senior year at Emory and she had reassured them that everything was fine.

The moment of revelation came around the family’s dining table. Her shame was so intense that the evening she returned home, she determined she would commit suicide the following day. Fortunately, her family welcomed her back and she was able to move on with her life.

Rachel remembered her father’s words: “Rachel, we don’t know what you’ve done, we don’t know what you’ve been through, but we know that there is nothing so bad that you could ever do that God doesn’t still love you and that we don’t still love you.”

She described her immediate reaction: “I don’t know if it was thirty seconds or thirty minutes or thirty years, but it was exactly the time and the love that I needed to quiet the thoughts of suicide and to feel that I was still loveable and worth having a future.”

Today, Thomas is a graduate of UCLA with a Masters in Education. She has more than 10 years’ experience in teaching, mentoring, corporate training, curriculum writing and public speaking.  She has educated and inspired a wide range of audiences including teens, social service providers, churches, teachers, college students, and law enforcement. 

Thomas participates in this these educational panels as a way of helping people understand.

“For those in the room, yes, human trafficking is real, and it is something that is in our community,” she said, “and if we’re not talking to our children about it, somebody’s talking to them about it.”

Shannon Sergey, founder & CEO of Forever Found, talks to the audience about her organization’s mission to prevent, rescue, and restore victims of child trafficking victims. Other panelists included (l. to r.): Rachel Thomas, trafficking survivor and director of Sowers Education Group, Andrea Haney, Ventura County Senior Deputy District Attorney who handles all of the human trafficking cases in Ventura County, Caitlin Kearns, Victim Advocate for the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office, Nick Odenath, Detective with Ventura County Sheriff’s Office assigned to the Special Crimes Unit conducting human trafficking investigations, and Brenda Wells, founder and Executive Director of the i-5 Freedom Network, whose mission is to engage the hospitality industry, businesses, and community leaders to fight human trafficking. Photo Tim Pompey

 


Tim Pompey, a freelance writer who has done lots of local affairs and entertainment/cultural writing, lives in Oxnard. Tim is also a fiction writer (Facebook Page). You can learn about his books on Amazon.com: amazon.com/author/booksbytimpompey.

Mr. Pompey’s Newest Book:  Mrs. Parsley and the Tale of Mossel’s Farm

Mrs. Parsley loves to tell stories to children. In her little house in Okafor, Florida, she writes them herself. Then, in a twist from her own past, Mrs. Parsley and her young friend Terence go on an adventure to rescue children held captive at the Mossel’s farm deep in the Big Cypress Swamp. Down the Blue Pole Road, across the Midnight Ferry, past the Milky White Magnolia Trail, and through the Crossing of the Gnome, magic, danger, and a wee bit of fun await them as they carry out their mission. Who will travel with Mrs. Parsley as she reclaims her past and discovers a new future—for Terence, for the captured children, for herself?

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