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Forum raises awareness on human trafficking

Forum raises awareness on human trafficking

Prostitution is often referred to as the world’s oldest profession, but as law enforcement agencies continue to investigate and prosecute these crimes, startling facts about this dark world have come to light.

In recent years the sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking has become a global epidemic. In an effort to raise awareness the Tulare County District Attorney held a community forum on Tuesday, Oct. 20 at the College of Sequoias to educate the community on human trafficking and how it effects not only children but adults. Over 425 students and community members were shown the documentary film entitled, ‘Chosen’ before submitting questions to a panel of local law enforcement agencies as well as victim advocates.

The film follows the story of two teenage girls and their experience as human trafficking victims. The documentary opens with Brianna a 17-year-old high school senior. Brianna came from a stable home, was college bound and highly involved in school and community. John Chapman the police officer who investigated Brianna’s case stated, “Through my experience girls from good homes, with good grades can still be exposed to this [human trafficking].” While waitressing Brianna met Nick. The handsome 24-year-old soon began showering Brianna with attention, eventually convincing her to run away from home and join him in Seattle. The girl lied to her parents, stole her father’s car and joined Nick in Seattle. It took little time before Nick took Brianna to a strip club where he forced her to dance for money.

Brianna remembers the shame and fear that she experienced during her brief time with Nick, but felt that he loved her. Brianna and Nick planned on visiting Arizona, but needed to return the stolen vehicle before leaving the state. Brianna reached out to a childhood friend in order to help her gather her belongings from her parents house. The friend felt that Brianna was in danger and coordinated an intervention with a human trafficking expert. Although upset at the time, Brianna soon realized that she was being groomed for sex trafficking after the investigator told her the story of “Lacy,” a 13-year-old girl who was tricked on the night of her birthday. Much like Brianna, Lacy’s pimp showered her with gifts and attention before forcing her to dance at strip clubs. Eventually he began pimping out Lacy to older men. Through force, fraud and coercion the young girl was exposed to the world of child prostitution.

After the film, Mikki Verissimo, the coordinator for the Tulare County human trafficking task force and prosecutor for the DA, led a panel discussion on how Tulare County is handling human trafficking locally. Verissimo introduced the panel which consisted of: victim advocate for the DA’s office, Anna Isais, investigator with the DA Martha Rodriguez, Jennifer Boteilho with Tulare County Rape Crisis Center and Tulare Police Department Detective Gian Mettifogo.

During the discussion Verissimo had Rodriguez explain to the audience the difference between human trafficking and human smuggling. Human trafficking is classified as forced labor or sexual exploitation against a physical person where as smuggling involves moving a person from one location to another. “They are two different things, but often happen simultaneously,” said Rodriguez.

Furthermore Rodriguez went on to explain the difference between prostitution and human trafficking. “Traffickers often keep the money earned and are using force, fraud and coercion. Sometimes you do have people selling themselves, but more often than not we are finding that she is being trafficked.” Rodriguez shared that any person under the age of 18 is automatically considered a victim of human trafficking.

Boteilho shared with the audience that victims of human trafficking can be anyone. “We’ve seen sexual assault victims range from an 8-month infant to a 92-year-old grandmother.” However, Boteilho shared those that are the most at risk are 13-17-year-old female runaways. Isais shared that 80% of runaways are approached by a pimp within 48 hours of leaving home.

Although Brianna and Lacy’s stories were different they both shared similarities. Both girls shared they often lied about their whereabouts. Their relationships with their traffickers were also similar. The traffickers were older men who showered the young girls with gifts and attention. After spending money on clothes and meals the traffickers blamed their victims for their money troubles suggesting they strip or sell their bodies to make money. Detective Mettifogo shared that much like Brianna and Lacy, traffickers isolate their victims from friends and family during the beginning of their ‘relationship,’ which is often referred to as a lover boy relationship.

Tulare County has seen six cases of human trafficking; furthermore, the panel agrees that with more training and awareness they will see more cases.

“I think it’s always happened here, but now that there is more awareness at the DA offices we are seeing an increase.” Rodriguez went on to say, “With Tulare County anti-human trafficking forums, much like this, community members will hopefully work together to raise awareness.”

To learn more about what human trafficking is visit da-tulareco.org/da_publications.htm.

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