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Human trafficking here too
Ceres leaders help get out the word about growing trend of sex slave cases
Hundreds attended a countywide Human Trafficking Summit held Thursday evening at the Modesto Centre Plaza. The event was organized by St. Pauls Episcopal Church and Without Permission, a non-profit organization in Modesto. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

People need to have a greater awareness that human trafficking is going on even in Stanislaus County. That was the jest of a proclamation issued last week by the Ceres City Council.

The proclamation, read by Mayor Chris Vierra, called for all to rededicate themselves to fighting "one of the greatest human rights abuses of our time."

Millions of people worldwide are being bought, sold, beaten and abused while "being hidden in darkness," said the mayor. Some are being put to work as modern-day slaves, working conditions while women are being plied into the sex trade.

"As Americans we long rejected such cruelty and recognized it as a debasement of our common humanity and an affront to the principles we cherish," the proclamation. It went on to say that it may be easy to think that it's a problem that exists "somewhere overseas in a far-away and foreign places, the unfortunate truth is human trafficking occurs right here right in our backyard."

The proclamation came just days before a Human Trafficking Summit held Thursday evening at the Modesto Centre Plaza. The event was organized by St. Paul's Episcopal Church and Without Permission, a non-profit organization in Modesto.

Father Nick Lorenzetti accepted the proclamation and said he was very grateful and explained why.

He told the Ceres City Council that a month ago in a strip mall six miles from Ceres someone in a beauty shop noted suspicious activity in the center in what was supposed to be an empty store. Adults were seen regularly bringing in young children to the empty space and "coming out with their hair dyed and dressed differently." He said two were middle school students and four were of high school age.

"The Stanislaus Sheriff's Office has provided a detective full-time because the increase of this problem in our community is up," said Father Lorenzetti.

He said traffickers are "relentless in getting these kids on drugs, convincing them that their parents are wrong, giving them money, taking them for shopping sprees at the mall and then shipping them south as victims of trafficking."

According to the state Attorney General's office, 1,277 victims were identified and 1,798 individuals arrested in the state from mid-2010 to mid-2012. The predation of children and young adults for the purpose of sex trafficking is also a local issue, according to Without Permission founder and CEO Debbie Johnson.

"I am here to tell you that it is here in Valley and that they are buying and selling and trading and bartering our children for sex in the Valley," Johnson said at the Summit.

An estimated 100,000 human sex slaves are in the United States, she said, and the FBI has seen 175 percent increase in pending human trafficking court cases.

The most active areas of human trafficking in California are in Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

"We have to address this issue as a community. We are losing a generation to sexual slavery," she said.

Johnson founded the faith-based nonprofit Without Permission in 2009, which has helped more than 80 survivors of sex trafficking in Stanislaus County. She got involved after hearing a 2007 speaker address traffickers in Mexico who pay bus drivers to drop the boys off at school and transport the girls to locations where they are used in child porn, used in sex trafficking and when done with them "suffocated and buried in mass graves."

Shocked at what she heard, Johnson said she "couldn't process what I was hearing. How was this possible? I'm a Christian so I went home and I began to holler at God, I began to pray and I began to research and I found out that human trafficking was an epidemic in the United States of America."

Without Permission has a three-pronged effort to combat human trafficking: education, survivor support and justice.

Education, of the public at large, youth who could be targeted by trafficking predators, and first-responders, is the foundation of Without Permission.

"As a community, we are ignorant of this issue," said Johnson.

Junior high age is when the majority of girls and boys are approached by sex trafficking predators - a fact that shocks most audiences, said Johnson. About 20 percent of victims are male.

Education of the issue also extends to law enforcement.

"We have brought the issue to the forefront, to law enforcement," said Johnson.

"I cannot arrest our way out of the problem," Modesto Police Detective Steve Anderson told the audience. "This is an education issue, this is educating our young people, educating parents, educating educators."

Carol Shipley of the Stanislaus County Family Justice Center said that "if we don't address the demand issue, we will get nowhere. If you don't have the demand, you don't need the supply."

Without Permission also works with Probation and Juvenile Hall authorities to educate at-risk populations of youth about the tactics of traffickers. Recruitment is done through social media, but also face-to-face at malls or just on the street. According to Johnson, 98 percent of recruitment of girls is done by "Romeo pimping" - when a boy, or man, plays a romantic role and woos them into prostituting.

"Young girls think it's cool. I see these young girls all the time...They have no idea what the predator is doing," said Johnson.

In some cases, Johnson said girls recruit other girls. One girl who came from a Stanislaus County family was in another state and invited to a party while she was at a bus stop. The 18-year-old was subjected to four weeks of partying with one male beginning to torture her. After four months of torture, the girl suffered 24 fractured bones and gangrene on her buttocks from the beating that required surgical removal.

"They had to literally cut her buttocks off from gangrene from the beatings she took," said Johnson.

Without Permission also works to restore victims of sexual exploitation. The first outreach is with a Bag of Compassion. This is a backpacked filled with personal care items a victim may need when being rescued by a first responder. When a survivor is put in touch with the organization, he or she is then assigned a trained volunteer to help navigate six key cornerstones in their restoration process - criminal justice, education, shelter, health, personal care and faith.

Without Permission's main goal is to prevent human trafficking and the nonprofit works towards this through justice advocacy.

"The only way we can really stop this is to stop girls from being victimized," said Johnson. "It's basic economics. If there was no demand, there'd be no victims."

Those who suspect that a child is being victimized may seek help by calling Crime Stoppers at 521-4636 or the Without Permission Support Line at 277-7758. Or the Human Trafficking National Hotline at 888 3737-888.

Kristina Hacker contributed to this article.