Pimps have ensnared Fresno middle-school students who were selling their bodies for extra spending money. Young women have been tricked, blackmailed and forced into having sex with strangers to support men they believed were their boyfriends. People – especially children – with low self-esteem, mental illness, unstable home lives or living in poverty are the preferred targets of an industry operating in the shadows.
Human trafficking is a complex issue. Police, advocacy groups and the Fresno legal community have formed a unique partnership to tackle the growing problem in new ways. But what can the rest of Fresno do to fight human trafficking?
Talking to your children or younger family members about the issue can educate them and help keep them out of harm’s way. Nonprofits that help trafficking victims would welcome financial donations. Residents can urge governments to allocate more resources to those policing and prosecuting traffickers. And far larger strides can be made to address a major underlying issue in the sex trade: the people, mostly men, who buy sex.
Many involved in the fight say that increasing awareness is critical, and that everyone of an appropriate age should learn about the dangers of human trafficking.
The U.S. Department of State offers an online fact sheet for those wanting to stop human trafficking, while the Polaris Project, which runs the national human trafficking hotline, keeps a list of common signs of trafficking.
The Central Valley Justice Coalition, a Fresno faith-based nonprofit with a focus on teaching about the ills of human trafficking, offers a Human Trafficking 101 class designed to be a three-hour crash course on recognizing and reporting trafficking. The next course will be in January. To register, go to www.justiceco.org/ht101.
The Fresno Unified School District and Fresno County District Attorney’s Office have partnered to produce public service announcements illustrating the dangers of human trafficking. Fresno Unified spokeswoman Jessica Baird said school resource officers at all district middle and high schools are getting extra training to help them identify students being trafficked.
One Fresno Police Department detective believes every 16-year-old girl in Fresno County has been targeted by a trafficker, often through social media. Some don’t know they’re in a predator’s sights, as messages may go unnoticed in online spam folders. Girls with healthy self-esteem typically know to avoid or ignore these messages, he said. Traffickers are looking for girls who don’t get enough love at home, so making sure your children feel loved and safe can bolster their defenses.
A trafficker’s recruitment can start with something as simple as a “like” on an Instagram post. Former trafficking victims caution against sharing too much on social media, even as young adults, as predators may be gathering information to ingratiate themselves later. For example, traffickers may claim to love the same band or movie as a way to start a conversation that ultimately leads to the sex trade.
The detective notes that children often use social media and chat applications on their computer or mobile devices to maintain this type of contact. Parents tell him they want to respect their children’s privacy, but he believes they need to at least familiarize themselves with how much contact their children have with others. Go through your child’s device with them, and ask them to explain and show you each application. Some may appear to be basic, such as a calculator app, but may in fact be used for chatting. Parents should try to familiarize themselves as best they can with the ever-changing realm of social media.
Melissa Gomez, program manager for the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s anti-human trafficking program, said that she has had age-appropriate conversations about human trafficking with her own children, ages 6 and 4.
You can talk to them about resiliency. How to bounce back when things don’t go your way. How to ask for help when you need it.
Melissa Gomez, project manager for Central Valley Against Human Trafficking
“You can talk to them about resiliency,” she said. “How to bounce back when things don’t go your way. How to ask for help when you need it.”
Gomez said adults who aren’t parents can also help by being a mentor or listener for any children in their lives.
“Many of the kids who we interview can’t name one person who is supportive – one person who they can go to if they need help,” she said.
Some believe the education system itself also could help teach children about the dangers of trafficking.
Fresno police Sgt. Curt Chastain, head of the department’s vice unit, said sex education taught in schools should include some mention of human trafficking by the sixth grade because that’s when kids are being approached. Children need to learn how to avoid common traps, he said, and boys must be taught not to become traffickers.
He said changing the public’s perception of pimps, who are often portrayed as being cool, friendly and wealthy, would help choke the supply of young men going down that path. A young boy who hangs out with a lot of girls or dresses in a certain way may be called a pimp, but boys need to learn that that’s not a good thing because pimps are cruel and evil.
“I’ve never had one that we’ve convicted that wasn’t a rapist, brutally beat these girls, a sodomist, would brand these girls with (the trafficker’s) name in a tattoo on their bodies,” Chastain said. “They’re horrible people, and they inflict brutal crimes.”
Miiko Anderson, the Fresno County deputy district attorney in charge of prosecuting human trafficking cases, also believes educating children about its dangers should be a part of school curricula. She says current lessons on saying no to drugs could be a model for trafficking education.
She also stressed the importance of boys and men learning that paying for sex is illegal and wrong, and that selling women is far worse.
Fresno has experimented with a few remedies. The police department posts mugshots on its website of those arrested while paying for sex, which detectives say keeps repeat offenses to a minimum. The court can also require those caught buying sex to attend a special instructional course. These offenders must pay $500 – half of which pays for their class, the other half going to services for trafficking victims.
But Anderson believes more must be done to change the mindset of those buying sex.
“There’s this illusion that she is willingly waiting for you,” Anderson said. “They call it the ‘girlfriend experience.’ But that person you are with is faced with violence and abuse.”
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 reported what is being done to help victims, target traffickers and prevent others from being trapped.