By Sheyanne Romero
visalia – For years human trafficking seemed like a problem that other countries dealt with. However, for many Americans, the realities of human trafficking are happening in their backyard. With the help of task forces, local district attorneys and law enforcement agencies have come together to uncover these horrific crimes. But what many are finding is that the remedy to this global issue starts with community awareness.
On April 8, Assemblyman Devon Mathis hosted a town hall meeting to bring awareness to human trafficking in Visalia. The invited guests for the evening included Anti-Human Trafficking advocate actress Marisol Nichols and Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward.
Mathis opened the evening by welcoming community members. Mathis became aware of human trafficking while working in Sacramento. Mathis, who is a father, shared that after hearing countless heartbreaking tales of trafficked victims, he reached out to Ward in an effort to assist his district with this pressing issue. “As a parent I sit here and I think, this could be happening to my daughter or my boys.” Mathis shared that both he and Ward have worked together to find solutions to this problem as well as educate the community. “There’s a lot being done right now and I thought you all should know about it.”
Ward is often asked if human trafficking is happening in Tulare County, “In Tulare County prior to 2012 no one was talking about it. Does that mean it wasn’t happening.” The short answer is no, since the creation of the human trafficking task force in 2014 the DA has seen six cases filed involving 12 defendants, all child victims.
“We’ve got great services to help victims of human trafficking,” shared Ward. He went on to say, “We want to send a message to traffickers, you will get caught and you will be held accountable.”
Marisol Nichols could not imagine that human trafficking took place in America. “I thought, ‘This is something that happens over there.’ But it’s not only in America, it’s in California, it’s everywhere.” She went on to say that human trafficking is a $32 billion dollar industry. On average a traffickers earns $150,00-$200,000 per victim and runs between 4-5 girls and boys at a time. Human trafficking is defined as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons through the use of threat, force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim. “I couldn’t fathom selling a human being over and over again,” said Nichols.
Nichols has been a part of three undercover trafficking busts—two of which took place in the United States. In May, Nichols will be traveling to the Dominican Republic to take part in yet another undercover sting. Through her work with the Human Trafficking task force, Nichols has seen the various ways in which victims are sold. One of the most powerful tools used for traffickers is the well-known classified advertising website, backpage.com. Prior to speaking at the town hall meeting, Nichols searched Visalia’s backpage website and found one ad stating, “New babe in town.” Many traffickers use code to let perspective Johns know when a new underage girl is available. “These girls are trafficked from town to town and you can get them right here in Visalia,” stated Nichols.
Nichols shared that the world is finally waking up to this issue and in California there is currently legislation being created to remove limitation on prosecuting Johns who are at fault. Human Trafficking is a supply and demand industry. Historically, it has been the prostitute who receives the harsher sentence if arrested. But as more knowledge about trafficking is brought to light, legislation is evolving.