My fellow Santa Claritans, I hope this finds you safe and well as we embark on another month of social distancing and semi-isolation together.
Not long before the shutdown back in March, I went to lunch with a few dads and our kids after school on a Friday. While our kids chatted and giggled, us dads got onto the topic of child safety; allowing our eleven year-olds to ride their bikes alone to friends houses, or to the playground, or even to school. One of the dads spoke up, a long-time law enforcement officer, and told us he didn’t think it was worth the risk. “They should always be in groups of at least three. Always,” he said. When pressed further he spoke of child traffickers who were constantly on the lookout for a vulnerable child. He spoke of a statewide effort to bust traffickers back in early February of this year that had resulted in 518 arrests, and the rescue of 76 adults and 11 children from slavery across California.
Needless to say, the conversation shook me to the core as a father of two. I know this abomination goes on in the world but perhaps I’d been naive about how close to home. I had so many questions, and still do, which is what brings me to today.
Since I’m not getting out On the Town much these days, I thought I’d shift the focus of my column to reflect the topics I’ve been discussing during my weekly radio show on KHTS entitled Common Ground.
The premise of the show is to talk about difficult, potentially divisive topics with civility and respect while ultimately focusing on those things we can agree on; those things that unite us; those things that are most important to us as human beings. My theory is that we have more in common than we’re led to believe these days, and the unprecedented coordinated reaction to COVID-19 proves that theory.
What’s more important than protecting our family, friends, and loved ones? Which is precisely the reason we’re taking such measures in regards to the coronavirus right now. And, in honor of April being proclaimed National Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Prevention Month, I think it’s important to keep up on all the ways we need to protect our loved ones, not only with face masks and hand sanitizer, but by teaching them to take extra precaution against falling into the world of human trafficking.
“Human trafficking has become rampant throughout the world, and often includes sexual assault. In 2019 alone, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received reports of nearly 12,000 cases of potential human trafficking in the United States, identifying more than 25,000 victims. More than 65 percent of these cases referenced women, and more than one in five referenced children,” according to www.whitehouse.gov.
The idea of our children falling victim to this sort of horror should be one our top priorities, folks. I feel like it’s up there with doing all we can to keep a single child from getting gunned down in school ever again. It’s simply not something that should happen in this country…or anywhere. So, to find out more answers and find out what I could do help prevent this kind of atrocity I spoke with a couple experts: Dr. Stephany Powell and attorney Cozette Vergari, who have dedicated themselves to eradicating human trafficking for the past several years.
Cozette Vergari is a native of Los Angeles; she grew up in Westchester, obtained a bachelor’s degree from USC and continued on with her master’s course work at USC in secondary education. She eventually became an attorney and has been practicing Family Law for 25 years. Vergari is also a fellow member of the Rotary Club, and is a Past District Governor for the Los Angeles region of Rotary International. Her main platform has been the issue of child sex trafficking and the broader issue of human trafficking. She is responsible for launching the website RotariansFightingHumanTrafficking.org and serves as the coordinator for the worldwide Rotarian Action Group Against Slavery. She became passionate about helping victims and survivors when a childhood friend escaped an abusive step father, and then later as a teacher, by helping a young woman become emancipated from an abusive home. Vergari told me that a pimp can make anywhere from fifty to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year per child. And what does the child get? “The child gets raped multiple times a day…up to 2000 times a year.”
During this lockdown kids are even more susceptible, Vergari says, because one of the main avenues a trafficker uses to get to our potential victims is through the internet and social media. “During this lockdown kids have more time on their hands, they’re missing friends and time outside the home.” We as parents need to remain vigilant in who our children are talking to and being contacted by online.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, “Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Every year, millions of men, women, and children are trafficked worldwide – including right here in the United States. It can happen in any community and victims can be any age, race, gender, or nationality. Traffickers might use violence, manipulation, or false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations. Language barriers, fear of their traffickers, and/or fear of law enforcement frequently keep victims from seeking help, making human trafficking a hidden crime.” (www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign)
And because it’s a hidden crime, it’s up to us to look out for our kids and our community. Dr. Stephany Powell has been doing just that. She travels down to Figueroa Street multiple times a week to help women and teens working the streets get services, healthcare and a ‘journey out’ if they desire. Over the past month, despite the mandated stay-at-home orders designed to curb the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Powell has been shocked to see “business as usual.” She said, “The sex workers are out there in pre-quarantine numbers…and the johns are too.” (Referencing a recent LA Times article featuring Powell.)
Dr. Powell, who got her doctorate in Education, retired from the LAPD as a Vice Sergeant after 30 years of service and accepted the leadership role at Journey Out in October 2013. Journey Out fights for the freedom and survival of victims in Los Angeles whose lives have been destroyed by commercial sexual exploitation and human sex trafficking. Since 2013, Journey Out has assisted over 1,000 victims with places to live, food, clothing, diversion from prosecution and counseling. Dr. Powell’s passion and expertise in this field has translated into new policies for the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) and the national massage school industry. She recently authored a human trafficking workbook My Choice, My Body, My Rules geared toward middle and high school students, which I highly recommend. It can found by simply typing in the title on Amazon.
Dr. Powell also warns that educating our kids before they go off to college is imperative because a lot of recruiting happens once they leave home for the first time. She goes further to say that desensitization through porn, racism, sexism and seeing women as ‘other’ or less than human; seeing women as objects…is the root of the problem. Again, this falls to us as parents to make sure our children not only know how to protect themselves, but to ensure they are looking out for each other with love and respect and dignity. The onus falls to us as parents to teach our children to respect humanity, which is very much reflected in the way we treat our women.
As a father, I aim to be an example of that to my son. Though I know I’ve failed many times in my life to be a shining example, my children know I would never hurt them and I would do anything to protect them. I would never want them to fall victim to anything like this, therefore it is up to me to treat all women as though they were my daughter, or my wife, or my mother. If everyone started with that, then perhaps we’d be a big step closer to ridding the planet of this horrible and completely unacceptable crime.
To learn more and get involved contact the Santa Clarita Rotary Club, Rotariansfightinghumantrafficking.org, also College of the Canyons offers a course which can give you a baseline understanding of the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC), donate or volunteer for Journey Out at journeyout.org, or Zoe International in Newhall, and the Dept. of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign offers this help in recognizing key indicators of human trafficking, which is the first step in identifying victims and can help save a life:
Does the person appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship?
Has a child stopped attending school?
Has the person had a sudden or dramatic change in behavior?
Is a juvenile engaged in commercial sex acts?
Is the person disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?
Does the person have bruises in various stages of healing?
Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive?
Does the person show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep, or medical care?
Is the person often in the company of someone to whom he or she defers? Or someone who seems to be in control of the situation, e.g., where they go or who they talk to?
Does the person appear to be coached on what to say?
Is the person living in unsuitable conditions?
Does the person lack personal possessions and appear not to have a stable living situation?
Does the person have freedom of movement? Can the person freely leave where they live? Are there unreasonable security measures?
We’re in this together, friends. It’s up to us. Just like we’ve come together to protect our loved ones from COVID-19, we can rid the world of abuse against our women and children. We’ve got this.