January marks the welcoming of a new year; it’s also Human Trafficking Awareness Month – a month to raise awareness about human trafficking issues and support survivors. After drug trafficking, human trafficking is the world’s second most profitable criminal enterprise and in California, there is an increasing need to provide more assistance and care for the victims and survivors of these heinous crimes, according to the Law and Justice section of Yolo County’s official website.

U.S. law defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel a person into commercial sex acts or labor or services against their will. The one exception involves minors and commercial sex. Inducing a minor into commercial sex is considered human trafficking regardless of the presence of force, fraud or coercion.

Human trafficking strips victims of their freedom and violates our nation’s promise that every person in the United States is guaranteed basic human rights; State of California Department of Justice website.  Women are particularly vulnerable to this crime. The victims of human trafficking are often young girls and women. Young girls and women are 57.6% of forced labor victims and 99.4% of sex trafficking victims; State of California Department of Justice website.  

Traffickers, also known as pimps, can be anyone (including family members, parents, friends, gangs, trusted adults, or “boyfriends”) who profits from the selling of a person to a buyer. Traffickers target vulnerable children and adults and lure them into sex trafficking using physical and psychological manipulation, and sometimes they may resort to violence. Any child may be vulnerable to such a person who promises to meet their emotional and physical needs. Often traffickers will create a seemingly loving or caring relationship with their victim in order to establish trust and allegiance. This manipulative relationship tries to ensure the victim will remain loyal to the exploiter even in the face of severe victimization. These relationships may often begin online before progressing to a real-life encounter.

“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased vulnerabilities making more individuals at risk for exploitations,” says Empower Yolo Associate Director, Celina Alveraz. Online access has also increased vulnerability. “Distance learning has given children increased internet access making them more susceptible to social media and online traffickers. Someone simply saying hi or showing interest in a child is all it takes to begin to lure a child into inappropriate conversations, which can lead to abuse or exploitation,” says Alveraz.  The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children noted an increase from 2 million to 4.2 million reports of online exploitation from March to April 2020. 

“Financial stressors including loss of jobs and income have increased vulnerabilities making the ease of earning money seem appealing,” says Alveraz.  Because people are more financially desperate due to the pandemic, they are more easily preyed upon.  “The demand for sex remains high; Sacramento County completed a sting operation of sex purchasers resulting in the arrest of 46 individuals from September to mid November 2020,” notes Alveraz. 

There are many signs/indicators of human trafficking such as the following: chronic truant/runaway/homeless youth; excess cash or motel/hotel room keys; multiple cell phones; signs of branding (tattoos, jewelry); having expensive items with no known source of income (especially hair, manicures, cell phones, clothes); lying about age/false identification/inconsistencies in information being reported; dramatic personality change; evasive behavior especially around a “new boyfriend”; talk about being “taken care of”; disengagement from school, sports, community; lack of knowledge of a given community or whereabouts; evidence of being controlled; inability to move or leave a job; bruises or other signs of physical abuse; fear, depression, appearance of being tired or overworked; not speaking on ones own behalf; no passport or other forms of identification or documentation; working excessively long hours; living in place of employment; checking into hotels/motels with older adults and referring to males as boyfriend or “daddy”, which may be slang for pimp; poor physical or dental health; tattoos/branding on the neck and/or lower back; untreated sexual transmitted infections/diseases.

“Sex trafficking of minors in our community is something that is difficult to accept, but it is happening every day in Yolo County to our youth. I am grateful for all the efforts to stop the exploitation of children by bringing awareness to this crime, services to its victims, and consequences to the exploiters,” says Cameron Handley, Director of Yolo County’s Children’s Advocacy Center.

Yolo County is not immune to issues of labor and sex trafficking.  Local law enforcement agencies, advocates, prosecutors, social workers, probation officers, mental health providers, and healthcare professionals continue to organize and collaborate in an effort to raise awareness, provide services to survivors and prosecute offenders. No one system, agency, or individual is capable of stopping human trafficking alone. In order to successfully combat this national epidemic, agencies, as well as individuals, must create strategic partnerships to respond to the issue on all levels. Yolo County has a coordinated community response so that when victims are identified services and support can start immediately. 

Empower Yolo has advocates on call to respond to a human trafficking investigation and offer support to a victim whether it be at a local hospital, law enforcement agency, forensic medical exam, CPS office, or forensic interview. Although some hospital protocols may be temporarily suspended due to the pandemic, advocates are still available to support survivors. 

Empower Yolo provides services for survivors of human trafficking including safe shelter. There’s also a designated human trafficking advocate who works with survivors providing support, information, resources, and advocacy.  

In an effort to raise awareness and highlight services available to survivors Empower Yolo is co-sponsoring the following event:

A free film screening of California’s Forgotten Children: Let their voices be heard – January 27, 2021, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. 

“California’s Forgotten Children” is a feature documentary about child sex trafficking. The film recounts true stories of girls and boys who were commercially sexually exploited in California and are now survivors and courageous leaders fighting for the rights of victims worldwide. This film gives viewers the tools to combat this epidemic and empowers survivors on their path to freedom. The full screening is in partnership with Yolo County Office of Education, Woodland Community College, and the Foster and Kinship Care Education Program.  To register contact Celina Alveraz at: [email protected]

We encourage community members to get involved by watching the film screening to learn more about the issues and what they can do to support their neighbors, friends and community.  Empower Yolo will also be hosting a toiletry drive for human trafficking survivors for the month of January.  Please donate new, travel-size toiletry items (i.e. shampoo/conditioner, body wash, soap, deodorant, chapstick). Other helpful items are gift cards for coffee, fast food, gas and groceries; non-perishable snacks; sweat pants (any sizes); towels or wraps to keep warm. Items can be dropped off at the main office at 175 Walnut Street, Woodland, or 441 D Street, Davis during office hours; or donate to our human trafficking program any time at: empoweryolo.org. Please follow our efforts throughout the month on Facebook @empoweryolo, Instagram and Twitter @empower_yolo.

For more information on human trafficking contact Celina Alveraz at: [email protected], or call our 24-hour hotline for support at 530-662-1133. All services are free, safe, and confidential. 

Thank you to Bayer for sponsoring Empower Yolo’s Human Trafficking Awareness Month efforts; we are grateful for their support.  We also appreciate Soroptimist Davis and Woodland for providing comfort backpacks for human trafficking survivors. 

Empower Yolo thanks all of our supporters and donors for their support throughout the year helping us in our mission of promoting safe, healthy and resilient communities.  Stay connected with Empower Yolo in 2021 at empoweryolo.org and for updates on programs and services, and opportunities in the New Year. 

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