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Regional task force spotlights human trafficking
Social, law enforcement problem emerging from ‘under-the-radar’
Friday, November 1st, 2013
Issue 44, Volume 17.
The topic, and a new law that took effect early this year, was the focus of a recent meeting of a task force of regional elected leaders. The heightened awareness comes as these crimes, which easily cross jurisdictional boundaries, are mushrooming.
"It’s a very pervasive problem that has been flying under the radar for a long time," said Gerald Fineman, a Riverside County supervising deputy district attorney.
The daunting social and criminal problem has been targeted for years by law enforcement in Riverside County. A rare public discussion of the topic was held at an Oct. 17 meeting of the Regional Family, Youth and Health Task Force. The meeting, held at Murrieta City Hall, attracted about 15 elected and appointed officials and approximately 35 audience members.
"The topic of commercial sexual exploitation is not easy to discuss," Gabriela Baeza, a project specialist for the San Diego County Office of Education, said in her opening remarks. "It doesn’t end with a one-hour presentation. This is just the beginning. I’m glad we’re getting together today to start this discussion."
The task force, which traces its genesis to Temecula in December 2012, is comprised of 24 elected officials representing eight cities and eight school districts throughout western Riverside County. The cities and school districts that participate include Temecula, Murrieta, Menifee, Lake Elsinore, Wildomar, Canyon Lake, Hemet and San Jacinto.
Previous task force meetings and workshops have examined the ills of family violence, substance abuse, mental health difficulties, gang activity and the societal problems that can spring from virtual gaming and social networking activities.
Human trafficking is the exploitation of any person through force, fraud, fear or coercion. That exploitation is frequently carried out through sexual exploitation, forced labor, forced servitude, debt bondage or slavery.
Trafficking is profitable because people, unlike drugs and firearms, can be used or sold many times. That allows human traffickers to continue to exploit their victims long after the victims were kidnapped, lured into captivity as a runaway or turned to drug addiction.
In 2011, there were more than 2,945 certified victims of human trafficking in the United States, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
Even the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department initially thought that its jurisdiction might not be ripe for such crimes.
"Since there are no direct ports of entry into the United States that exist in Riverside County, many believed that human trafficking crimes would not be prevalent in areas such as this," the department’s website states. "However, when the Sheriff and his staff began to take a closer look, it was evident that cases involving human trafficking were occurring in Riverside County."
The website notes that identifying a human trafficking victim can be difficult, and that increased training and the involvement of county victim services is needed.
"Many of the human trafficking victims identified in Riverside County belong to minority groups, some of whom are in the country illegally," the website continues. "A victim’s immigration status makes identification and rescue of these victims problematic."
Most minors who become involved in prostitution have run away from, or been kicked out of, abusive or dysfunctional homes, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Gang involvement or influences can also play a key role, Baeza said.
Approximately 1.7 million children run away or are ejected from family settings every year, with just 357,600 of them reported to police as missing, according to a U.S. Department of Justice study. That agency estimates that the crime of human traffickinggenerates $32 billion in profits annually worldwide.
At least 100,000 youths a year are drawn into child prostitution, with the average age of entrance being 12-14 years old, according to the National Center.
Gang involvement or inappropriate adult influences can use force, drugs, money, housing or possessions to steer youths into lives of prostitution that are difficult to escape, Baeza said. Youths from across the spectrum of local
communities – especially those who have an unstable home life, low self-esteem or meet other identified criteria – are most at risk, she said.
Social media can also be a danger, she said, as it exposes youth to sophisticated predators.
"It can be a very dangerous place for kids if they don’t know who they’re interacting with," Baeza said. "These people are out there."
She shared lists of potential risk factors and other information aimed at helping to educate area communities about the problem. She recommended steps that communities can take to raise awareness and reduce youth vulnerability.
"Many people have no idea this is going on," Baeza said. "I hope you have a knot in your stomach, because if you do then it means it hit you and you want to do something about it."
Meanwhile, a law enforcement task force has focused on a range of issues centered on human trafficking.
About three years ago, a state grant was accepted that led to the creation of the Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. The law enforcement
task force was initially comprised of two county sheriff’s investigators and a part-time sheriff’s sergeant.
Several additional agencies have since joined the group. It now includes agents from the FBI and Homeland Security, two sheriff’s investigators, one part-time sheriff’s detective, a full-time sheriff’s sergeant and a sheriff’s lieutenant who serves as the program manager. Specific deputy district attorneys in Riverside, French Valley and Indio are assigned human trafficking cases.
As of October 2012, Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies have responded to and investigated more than 4,000 reported runaway incidents, officials said. Countywide statistics on human trafficking
were not readily available, but Fineman said in a telephone interview that some key local cases have been prosecuted by the FBI because they crossed jurisdictional boundaries.
Efforts to combat human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children gained traction earlier this year with the implementation of Proposition 35. Prop. 35 was dubbed the CASE Act due to its acronym: Californians Against Sexual Exploitation.
The measure’s 81 percent approval rate during the November 2012 election made it the first state initiative to receive more than 10 million votes. Nearly 85 percent of Riverside County voters cast ballots in favor of the measure.
Law enforcement officials say that margin of victory was a strong signal of public support for the tougher law, which makes human trafficking a felony with jail sentences of five to 12 years.
The new law also gives police greater latitude to treat prostitutes who are minors as victims rather than crime suspects. That new approach by law enforcement is crucial as efforts increase to curb human trafficking, Baeza said.
"There has been a paradigm shift," she said. "We now see (underage prostitutes) as victims."
The recent discussion had a marked effect on several of the city council and school board members who attended the 1½-hour session.
Murrieta Mayor Rick Gibbs called it "a fascinating and scary presentation."
Gibbs noted that no major trafficking crimes have surfaced yet in southwest Riverside County, but many youth are vulnerable and gang inroads could set the stage for underage prostitution.
"If there’s anybody out here who thinks the evils of the world aren’t here, they are mistaken," Gibbs said.
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