Defense attorney Kristin Maxwell remembers when a client came to her Fresno office shortly after being discharged from a hospital.
The teenage girl had been beaten, raped and dumped in a neighboring county. Police found her unconscious, lying naked in an alley.
“There are some parts of the body that bruise easily, and some that don’t,” said Maxwell, who’s worked in the Fresno County Public Defender’s office for 11 years. “Looking at her, you knew she had been through it. She had been beaten really badly.”
This case stands out for its brutality, Maxwell said. But it was the sheer number of human trafficking cases crossing her desk when she took control of the Public Defender’s juvenile office in 2015 that shocked her into action.
The legal community has partnered with advocacy groups, law enforcement and the Fresno County Probation Department to improve the criminal justice system in an effort to get children out of the sex trade permanently. Their work will soon bear fruit: On Jan. 19, Fresno County’s juvenile court will establish a courtroom dedicated solely to human trafficking cases.
This new court – patterned after similar courts in Sacramento, Los Angeles and other California counties – will allow a judge with specialized training to work with the various partner agencies to ensure children caught up in the sex trade receive help that’s customized for their needs.
Unless it’s thrust in your face, you don’t realize it’s happening at Buchanan. It’s not just Roosevelt or McLane. We have girls and boys. Some of them are being picked up at the mall.
Defense attorney Kristin Maxwell
Judge Kimberly Nystrom-Geist, the juvenile court’s presiding judge, credited the Public Defender’s office with taking the lead role in advocating for the human trafficking court. She also praised the court’s grant writer, who obtained a three-year, $383,651 grant from the Judicial Council of California to fund the new endeavor.
Nystrom-Geist referred to the new court as a trafficking court only as a clarification for news media. It has no official name and is loosely referred to as Friday court among the legal community, because Nystrom-Geist believes officially calling it the “trafficking court” labels the children served in an unfair and possibly demeaning way.
Maxwell is hopeful that providing young trafficking victims with a way out of the sex trade and a plan for their futures will help them turn their lives around.
“The crazy thing is the resilience of these young women,” she said. “I’ve never seen such strong girls. I don’t know what I would do if something like this happened to me.”
Most of her clients are brought in by police because officers see no alternatives to get them out of the sex trade, she added. Few are charged with a crime, and it falls upon the Public Defender, the Fresno County District Attorney’s office and the Fresno County juvenile court to figure out what’s best for them.
These children typically don’t receive enough attention at home, Maxwell said. Many are foster youth, runaways or have older boyfriends. The office’s youngest trafficking victim was 13. The average age was about 14 or 15. They were from all over the county, with varied backgrounds and stories.
“Unless it’s thrust in your face, you don’t realize it’s happening at Buchanan,” she said. “It’s not just Roosevelt or McLane. We have girls and boys. Some of them are being picked up at the mall.”
The new court will work much like drug or behavioral health courts, Nystrom-Geist said. One judge will keep track of all the juvenile trafficking cases and have access to a new online dashboard. The judge, law enforcement agencies and advocacy groups will have access to this computer program, allowing them to coordinate services. For example, if the judge decides a child needs to spend time in a live-in facility, the dashboard will show which have bed space.
Nystrom-Geist stressed that the new court’s purpose is not to punish children caught in the sex trade. Instead, it will streamline the process of helping victims in need of unique care. Some may have unstable home lives that need to be dealt with. Others may need mental health care to deal with trauma from being in the sex trade. The judge will be able to access the caseloads of care providers in real time and order help for the child.
Bitwise Industries subsidiary Shift3 Technology, the dashboard’s designer, unveiled some of its work at a meeting Tuesday that brought together Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, Public Defender Liz Diaz, Nystrom-Geist, Fresno County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kimberly Gaab, several probation department heads and the leaders of several nonprofit human trafficking service providers.
Gaab called the gathering “like nothing I have ever seen,” referring to the fact that each office sent its highest-ranking official – not just a representative. She said it indicated the total commitment within the legal community to addressing the human trafficking problem.
Shift3 also created the dashboard currently used in the drug courts. Prior to this system, attorneys gave their clients a piece of paper to take to the service provider for admission. Now, admission is handled electronically, and the defendants need only show up to their first appointment. The new trafficking dashboard will also feature a mobile application for victims, attorneys and service providers to keep track of appointments.
Smittcamp thanked the Shift3 team, saying the new software allowed the young trafficking victims to “use technology for good” – a reference to the fact that many of these children are recruited through technology, especially social media.
A similar program aimed at curbing juvenile human trafficking has had success in Sacramento County Superior Court. It was developed through a partnership among Sacramento’s court, district attorney and public defender, along with the UC Davis Children’s Hospital CAARE Center, which treats child abuse and neglect.
Spokeswoman Kim Pedersen said about 300 children have been helped through the program, which began in July 2014. The proof of the program’s success is in increased school attendance and graduation rates, better grades, reduced substance abuse, decreased trauma symptoms and lower runaway rates. More children are also resolving their juvenile court issues rather than continuing on to adult court for any criminal matters.
Pedersen said the court also increased public awareness about the human trafficking problem, which led to the establishment of a similar diversion court for adults that focuses on securing behavioral health services for trafficking victims, especially those between ages 18 and 25.
It remains to be seen if Fresno County will follow suit and establish designated trafficking courts for adult victims.
Fresno County Superior Court spokeswoman Suzanne Abi-Rached said judges in the adult court who deal with human trafficking victims brought in on prostitution or other charges will also have access to this dashboard, but there are no plans yet to establish a designated court.
The District Attorney’s office continues to move away from prosecuting those accused of prostitution because local law enforcement now often categorizes those accused of selling their bodies for sex as victims instead of criminals. It must walk a tightrope, as the Superior Court does because human trafficking victims may be charged with a crime, unlike the juvenile court, where prostitution is no longer an applicable charge.
Miiko Anderson is no stranger to adult human trafficking cases. After 10 years as a Fresno County deputy district attorney in a variety of areas, she became the office’s first full-time trafficking prosecutor in September.
Within a few months, she secured a major conviction against Herbert Deon Goodwin Jr., who trafficked a 17-year-old girl and a 42-year-old woman while on parole for a previous conviction for pimping a 15-year-old girl. Goodwin had made it appear to authorities that he was a model parolee, staying in touch with his parole officer and working for a company that gives away government-assistance cell phones. But Anderson proved he was using those very cell phones to traffic a child. He was sentenced to 36 years to life in prison.
Goodwin and those like him are her primary targets.
Anderson said gangs view prostitution as “low-hanging fruit,” as women can make as much as $10,000 in a day. Unlike guns or drugs, women can be sold over and over again.
“The greed, the lack of humanity – they live off the flesh of another,” she said.
To get help or help others:
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888
This number can be used to report anyone in need of assistance and does not require the caller to contact law enforcement.
To fight trafficking:
Editor’s note: Human trafficking is a widespread concern that advocates and law enforcement officials say is on the rise throughout Fresno – north, south, east and west. The Fresno Bee has taken an in-depth look inside the world of the sex trade and its victims. Over a series of stories this fall, The Bee is reporting what is being done to help victims, target traffickers and prevent others from being trapped.