Human Trafficking

Human trafficking plagues the Valley. People raised thousands of dollars to fight it

Free our children! Stop Trafficking advocates raise money, awareness at Blackstone, Shaw

A coalition of advocates, volunteers and public officials gathered along Blackstone Avenue to raise money for the fight against human trafficking.
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A coalition of advocates, volunteers and public officials gathered along Blackstone Avenue to raise money for the fight against human trafficking.

Dozens of advocates, volunteers and public officials gathered along Blackstone Avenue on Thursday to raise money for the fight against human trafficking, one of the most prevalent and least understood crimes in Fresno County.

Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer, Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp and Fresno City Councilman Clint Olivier were among the officials who joined in the event, which spread volunteers holding bright orange stop signs along Blackstone near Shaw Avenue. The “Stop Traffic to Stop Trafficking” event benefited the Pledge to Stop Human Trafficking coalition, a group of seven local nonprofits that work to help those entrapped by the sex and labor trades.

“Human trafficking is a reality for this community,” Smittcamp said. “Nobody’s children are safe. Everyone is fair game to these traffickers.”

During the last half of 2017, The Fresno Bee published a seven-part series and documentary feature, “Slaves of the Sex Trade,” on human trafficking, its victims and the people who fight it.

A victim advocate – who asked not to be named – joins in the fight against sex trafficking during the second annual Stop Traffic to Stop Trafficking event, to raise awareness and funds, Thursday morning, Jan. 11, 2018, at Shaw and Blackstone avenues in central Fresno. JOHN WALKER

Since that series appeared, several of the nonprofits and advocates featured have seen an increase in public speaking requests and money raised. Sgt. Curt Chastain and the Fresno police vice unit have received further requests from other state law enforcement agencies for training on how to combat human trafficking, and the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office will soon add a second prosecutor to its human trafficking unit.

State politicians have also reached out to local agencies to offer help. Melissa Gomez, the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s human trafficking project leader, said it recently received a $450,000 extension of statewide grant funding that will allow the EOC to continue its current programs until 2019. She added that Assemblyman Jim Patterson has reached out to provide additional help.

On Thursday, former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, now the president of the Central Valley Community Foundation, presented the coalition with a check for $10,000. The check was part of the foundation’s pledge to match up to $17,000 in fundraising over the next six years. It came from the Gundelfinger Fund, named after a 19th century woman who worked to help children and women who were the victims of violence in Fresno.

Human trafficking is a widespread concern that advocates and law enforcement officials say is on the rise throughout Fresno. Three women tell their stories of horror, survival and healing.

At a news conference, the leaders took their turns thanking local law enforcement and the nonprofits who fight human trafficking on a daily basis.

Olivier noted that Fresno was the nation’s leader in terms of its organized, hands-on approach to the growing problem. He donated $500 to the Pledge.

Dyer thanked Chastain, who heads the police department’s vice unit, for changing the culture of the police department. As a result of Chastain and his detectives, Dyer said, officers now understand that the women being trafficking in Fresno are victims, not criminals.

$18,000The amount raised by the Pledge to Stop Human Trafficking event as of noon Thursday.

Debra Rush, co-founder of Pledge coalition member Breaking the Chains, said the volunteers had raised about $8,000 as of noon, in addition to the $10,000 contributed by the Community Foundation. The event was scheduled to end at 6 p.m. That amount was a marked improvement from 2017, the event’s first year, when about $2,400 was raised over the entire day.

The nonprofits have seen an increase in awareness and requests for help from victims over the last three years, Gomez said. Since 2010, the EOC’s project has identified 603 human trafficking victims in the central San Joaquin Valley. After The Bee’s series was published, so many victims have come forward that the EOC now has to maintain a waiting list for case management services, she said. However, those who need immediate help with trauma are not waitlisted.