Monday, February 2, 2009

Human Trafficking in Sonoma? Yes!

Thu 1/29 7 PM
PART 1: Human trafficking a reality
By Emily Charrier-Botts

Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series that will look at human trafficking in Sonoma County. The first part will deal with human trafficking for sexual exploitation, while the second article will look at forced labor.

In many minds, human trafficking is something that only occurs in the far corners of developing nations, where children and adults end up as modern day slaves in the commercial sex industry or as forced labor. Many believe it is not something that could be rampant the United States, let alone within the tranquil confines of Sonoma County.

"It's all around us," said Kathy Hargitt, a consultant on human trafficking and a Valley resident. "It's everywhere." And it's an issue that elected officials in Sonoma are starting to more seriously address. Earlier this month, the Sonoma City Council and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors declared that Jan. 11, would forever more be Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

A recent report from the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery Task Force found that California was the top destination in the United States for trafficking people.

And human trafficking has become a real problem in Sonoma County, which is rich in the agricultural industries that brings in forced laborers and is close enough to the Bay Area to attract the commercial-sex industry. Actual statistics on the number of people who are trapped in these modern-day slavery rings are nearly impossible to determine because of the secretive nature of the industry, but the federal government conservatively estimates between 14,000 and 17,500 people are brought into the country against their will each year.

According to the report, about 80 percent of those trafficked into California are women. About 66 percent of humans trafficked into America are brought for sexual exploitation, the remaining 34 percent are forced to work in sweatshops, agriculture fields or as domestic servants.

"The statistics on this whole issue are really hard to get," Hargitt said. "What we do have is a lot of stories, a lot of qualitative data."

Hargitt recalled an incident where a developmentally disabled girl disappeared from the campus at Santa Rosa Junior College. The girl's mother said her daughter had trouble making friends, but had been approached by another woman on campus to hang out. Her daughter was not seen again, but because the girl was considered an adult, law enforcement could do little to help.

The mother went on a crusade to find her daughter. It took a full 18 months, but she finally discovered the girl was being sold on, an online classifieds Web site that has become a hotbed for the commercial-sex trade. The mother was able to set up a sting operation to get her daughter back, but many parents are not so lucky.

"There are quite a number of women who have experienced being coerced into commercial-sexual exploitation," Hargitt said. While many traffickers feed on the most vulnerable members of society, such as runaways, drug addicts or immigrants who do not understand their rights, the high-market value for young, white girls in the sex trade has brought some traffickers to the suburbs. While thousands are trafficked in every year, an unknown number of American teens are sold throughout the country for sexual exploitation.

"There's an epidemic of white, upper-class kids in this industry," Hargitt said.

Many of the minors who end up in commercial sex rings are contacted over the Internet on social-networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace.

After establishing a friendship, the predator gains the minor's trust and is able to easily manipulate the child's behavior, including convincing the child to run away from home. They are then forced to rely on their captors for the basic necessities of life, and a sort of Stockholm Syndrome sets in where the victim will sympathize with the trafficker. In other cases, the victims are terrorized with threats of violence on their life and that of their families to keep quiet.

"It's a psychological brainwashing that happens," said Chris Castillo, executive director of United Against Sexual Assault of Sonoma County, which works with law- enforcement agencies to support victims of sexual assault, including those who have been trafficked.

Castillo said her organization works to repair the survivor's sense of self, empowering him or her to realize their value as a person, and the human rights we all possess. "It's a slow process," Castillo said, but a vital one, especially to bring the guilty to justice. "(The survivor) may not be able to help prosecute their captors because they're too afraid."

Sgt. Dave Thompson, with the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit, said pinpointing a human trafficking ring is the most difficult aspect for law enforcement, especially when victims aren't talking.

"We may not recognize it when we see it. It's not something where people come into town with a big banner on the side of their van," Thompson said. "(The survivors) are reluctant to give up any information. There's a fear factor built in that is very tragic."

Thompson said whenever a minor is discovered being exploited in the commercial-sex industry, law enforcement can immediately take the survivor into protective custody.

However, Hargitt said many victims are so dependant on their captors that they will run away from their foster homes and return to the traffickers. And many of those who are trafficked are over the age of 18, meaning that unless they tell law enforcement they've been trafficked, they will be treated as conventional-prostitution cases, and can be released from custody to the waiting arms of their captors.

"There needs to be a follow up service," Hargitt said. "They need to be treated as rape victims, which they are. There's a lot of old attitudes that need to be changed."

Castillo agreed, saying there was a negative stigma against prostitutes in the community when a large number of them are actually sexual slaves. This stigma may keep people from seeking the help they need.

Thompson, Castillo and Hargitt are all a part of the North Bay Area Human Trafficking Task Force, a collection of law enforcement and nonprofit organizations that are working together to tackle these issues. All three agree there is a long way to go to solve these problems, but the process will involve providing more training to officers and spreading awareness in the community.

"There is an absolute need to let parents know what's going on," said 1st District Supervisor Valerie Brown, who has been actively involved in pursuing a better understanding of the depth of human trafficking in Sonoma County. She said the greatest need is to develop a system to understand the scope of the issue. "We do not have a good system for data collection. Really, we need to figure out what information needs to be collected."

Hargitt and Castillo said getting parents involved is an important preventive measure. United Against Sexual Assault will be offering a free training class for parents to learn more about talking with their children, gang prevention, Internet safety and more. The classes will take place on Tuesdays from 8 to 10 a.m. or Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. beginning Feb. 4 (call 545-7273, ext. 16 for more).

Hargitt added that getting involved in mentoring programs can ensure a child understands their self worth enough to avoid the temptation of easy money. "If you want to make a difference, be a mentor. These kids need to understand they're valued. Some of their parents couldn't care less because they're more in love with their drugs than their children," Hargitt said.

For now, these advocates will continue to find ways to collaborate and share resources to better fight the spread of sexual exploitation.

"We're very committed to fighting this," Thompson said. "We don't want to be a mecca for this type of thing."

United Against Sexual Assault of Sonoma County has a wide range of services for survivors of human trafficking or sexual assault. The main office number is 545-7270. The 24-hour crisis line can be reached at 545-7273.

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Mon 2/2 6 PM
PART 2: Trafficking in the fields
By Emily Charrier-Botts

Editors note: This is the second in a three-part series that examines human trafficking in Sonoma County.

They come to California for the chance to work, the chance to make a living, the chance to support their families. But coming to a strange culture without knowledge of the laws or language makes migrant workers an appealing target for human traffickers.

Around the state there have been thousands of cases of people forced to work as domestic servants, agricultural laborers or in sweatshops. Statistics on human trafficking are sketchy at best, as countless incidents are never reported. The federal government estimates between 14,000 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the country every year, of which about 66 percent are used for sexual exploitation and 34 percent are forced labor. Here in Sonoma, the most common type of human trafficking exists in the agricultural fields. Every year, hundreds of undocumented workers come to the Valley to pluck grapes and prune vines, but it is unknown how many are here on their own accord.

"We know that here in Sonoma, people are involved in labor rings," said 1st District Supervisor Valerie Brown, who is eager to expand the county's understanding of human trafficking by establishing data-collection systems and providing more training to law enforcement. "I think we're just beginning to understand the depths of this."

There are a number of scams traffickers use to initiate labor rings, but most commonly workers are approached by a contractor who says he has plenty of work, but needs extra hands. The workers are lured by the promise of steady money, and agree to go with the contractor to work in the United States, often handing over their passports and identification in the process. Once in America, the workers are told they are responsible for paying for all their expenses, from the cost of travel and lodging, to food and water. These costs imposed by the contractor quickly add up to more money than the worker is even making. The debt continues to increase and the worker is told he or she must keep working until it is paid off, but that day may never come.

"That's how (the contractor) works it," said Mario Castillo, outreach manager at Vineyard Worker Services, who sees first hand how human trafficking impacts the Valley. "They (the workers) have a debt they have to pay. But the contractors make the debt last forever because they keep adding to it."

So the workers continue to work, unable to even save up enough money to return to their native countries. While there are a handful of organizations dealing with labor disputes around the state, most workers will never seek help out of fear. They are often physically abused, and traffickers threaten violence against their families back home if the workers speak up.

"They don't know what's legal and what's not," Castillo said. "This is a country of laws, people do have rights. But they don't understand that, they're used to being exploited or abused, even in their own country."

Castillo said it is an issue that runs rampant in Sonoma, where many vineyards will use contractors to find laborers to work the vines. As the vineyard owner deals directly with the contractor, they are never aware that some of their laborers may never be paid or are forced to work.

"The (wine industry) system is well placed to take advantage of people," Castillo said. "The scary thing is that many of the big vineyards and companies are closing their eyes to this."

State and federal lawmakers are still grappling with the responsibility a landowner has to oversee labor. In 2000, proprietors of Victoria Island Farms, an asparagus farm in Holt (San Joaquin County), was charged after a number of employees escaped the farm and told authorities they

were forced to work in

substandard conditions with no pay. Although the farm had found its laborers through J.B. Farm Labor Contractor, which was responsible for the employees, the farm had to pay more than $540,000 in restitution.

Vineyard Worker Services exists to aid migrant workers with basic necessities, such as health care and housing.

But more and more often the organization is tapped to help those who have been trafficked break out of the labor rings.

Castillo recounted the case of a man who had been working off his debt to a contractor for almost two years, and had never seen any money during that time. He finally went to Vineyard Worker Services to find a way out of his situation.

"He didn't see any way to finish paying off the money he owes," Castillo said, adding that he was wary about accepting any help. "He felt unsafe. He was worried about his life."

Castillo said his organization works with California Rural Legal Assistance in Santa Rosa, a nonprofit designed to aid undocumented immigrants through legal disputes, particularly when it comes to disputes with contractors.

Castillo said Vineyard Worker Service will happily aid vineyard owners in finding labor that is not coerced. "I feel always glad to provide that information," Castillo said. "(Vineyard owners) can come to us and we'll always help them."

Vineyard Worker Services can be reached at 933-0897 or visit the Web at

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Over the years my opinions have changed but this will never change: Jesus Christ, Lord, God and Savior, died on the cross and rose from the dead to pay for my sin.