In the past five years, nearly 150 people have been victims of human trafficking from Merced to Bakersfield, coordinators of a conference to raise awareness of the crime said Friday.
Victims, law enforcement and victim service providers rely on the public to report suspected human trafficking, organizers of the fifth annual Conference on Human Trafficking said.
"Make the tip and make the call, and we can proceed from that point," said Ronna Bright, coordinator of Central Valley Against Human Trafficking, an organization founded in 2009 by the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission to lead anti-trafficking efforts.
There are signs of trafficking that can be a tip-off, Bright said: bars and secured doors on businesses, employees living and working on the premises, and people who are severely withdrawn.
Human trafficking can be hard to spot, said Sgt. Curtis Chastain of the Fresno Police Department's anti-human trafficking task force. "A trafficker can look like you or me or anyone on the street," he said.
The victims can be anyone: Of the 146 people exploited in the Valley, the youngest was 12 and the oldest was 50, Bright said. Immigrants often have been targets: 42 were foreign nationals from as far away as Ecuador, Russia, Egypt and India, she said.
Jamelia Hinds, 26, was one of the victims. At age 12, she was taken from Central America to the United States by a woman who promised her mother that Hinds would have a better life. Instead, Hinds was forced into domestic servitude for a decade.
Her trafficker was never prosecuted and remains in Clovis, Hinds said.
During her decade of servitude, Hinds wanted to leave but was scared by her captor into staying. "She would tell me, 'If you leave out of this house, you're going to end up in a ditch somewhere — dead.' "
Hinds said she also was threatened with deportation and was forced to marry and become pregnant under the premise that she would be allowed to remain in the United States if she had a child. Desperate to escape, Hinds said she turned herself in to immigration authorities. She was locked up for 24 hours. With nowhere to go, she went back to her captor, but at age 22, she was rescued and found security at the Marjaree Mason Center.
Fear of deportation silences many victims of human trafficking, said Mario A. Gonzalez of Centro La Familia, a Fresno nonprofit that serves the low-income community.
But victims who help with human trafficking investigations can get special visas that allow them to stay legally in the U.S., Gonzalez said. Centro has a grant to help victims and fight human trafficking.
Hinds wants victims to know there is help and not to give up. "I was determined to have that freedom — and I had that hope that someone would help me — and they did."
Today, she works for a nonprofit in Fresno that fights human trafficking.
For Diana Cisneros, 27, of Bakersfield, the conference at Children's Hospital Central California was a chance to spread awareness of human sexual trafficking. She is now an advocate for minors who have been trafficked. But from the age of 7 until she left home at 16, Cisneros said, she was the victim of an abusive father who sold her for sex.
As a child, she didn't know how to explain what was happening, she said. When she was older, she reached out to teachers and a school counselor. She learned that a couple of teachers had suspected abuse earlier and reported it, but she was never questioned about the suspicions. Her father fled before he could be prosecuted, she said, and she has not seen him since. In the past 10 years, Cisneros said, she has healed.
Her message: "If something doesn't seem right, report it. Your report can make the difference in a child being abused for another 10 years."
HOW TO HELP
To report human trafficking:
* National Human Trafficking Resource Center, (888) 373-7888
* Fresno Police Department Tip Line, (559) 621-5950
To learn more about human trafficking: www.fresnoeoc.org/cvaht
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, firstname.lastname@example.org or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.