Human trafficking, an estimated $32 billion-a-year global industry, is not just found in countries like Mexico. According to the California 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 - just ask Without Permission founder and CEO Debbie Johnson.
Johnson founded the faith-based nonprofit Without Permission in 2009, which has helped more than 80 survivors of sex trafficking in Stanislaus County.
"We have to address this issue as a community. We are losing a generation to sexual slavery," she said.
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.
Johnson travels the region speaking to service clubs, churches and at community events about this uncomfortable topic, hoping to raise awareness. She also informs the public about existing laws on human trafficking, national statistics on this growing problem, and the profile of a trafficking predator.
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.
"These are our boys and girls who are being sold to men in our community," she said.
Education of the issue also extends to law enforcement.
"We have brought the issue to the forefront, to law enforcement... including the Turlock Police Department," said Johnson.
Without Permission believes that through education and relationship building girls can find the courage and information needed to communicate with officers who can help them escape slavery. The nonprofit gives law enforcement leaders the tools to put procedures in place so a rescue can be made should they encounter victims in the course of their work.
Without Permission's efforts have been recognized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Sacramento Field Office of the FBI presented the 2013 Director's Community Leadership Award to Johnson in December 2013.
"Debbie's strength and genuine compassion for victims of human trafficking drive her tireless efforts to make a difference for victims in Stanislaus County," said Special Agent in Charge Monica M. Miller. "She is committed to helping law enforcement, service providers, and the public better understand who these victims are and to work collaboratively with federal, state, and local resources to stop the cycle of victimization."
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.
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."
Learn more about Without Permission at a presentation by Johnson at the Turlock First United Methodist Church on Saturday. The presentation will start at 10 a.m. and be held at the church's social hall, 1660 Arbor Way. There is no admission fee, both men and women are invited to attend, and childcare will be provided.
All those interested in attending may go to the FUMC Turlock website: fumcturlock.org. There on the home page there is a scrolling announcement about this event. Click on the announcement, and then on the registration link. Those interested in attending may also reserve a seat by calling the church at 668-3000 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.