Pictured: A Jan.10, 2020, meeting of the VC Human Trafficking Task Force Leadership Advisory Committee. From left: Kathryn Torres, detective with Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, Christan Perez, program manager at Interface Children and Family Services, Nicholle Gonzalez-Seitz, program director with Interface, Erik Sternad, executive director at Interface, Bill Ayub, sheriff, VCSO, Nick Odenath, detective, VCSO, Jacqui Irwin, California Assemblymember. Photo submitted. 

by Kimberly Rivers

krivers@timespublications.com

What does human trafficking look like? It is not always a person locked in a storage container and does not always take place in a remote Third World nation. Communities across the country are realizing that modern-day human slavery is occurring in our backyards. This includes Ventura County: In 2016, five people were arrested in Camarillo after an investigation uncovered a ring involving over two dozen victims. (“Modern slavery: detectives bust suspected human trafficking ring operating in Ventura County,” Chris O’Neal, VCReporter, Aug. 24, 2016.)

The U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) defines human trafficking as “exploiting a person for labor, services, or commercial sex” and California is ranked in our nation’s top four states as a “destination” for “trafficking human beings.” (Office of the California Attorney General)

“As the community and law enforcement have become more aware of human trafficking, and what it looks like, our numbers of reports have increased,” said Kathryn Torres, a detective with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office (VCSO) assigned to the new Human Trafficking Task Force. “We don’t believe the problem is getting worse, it is simply being more recognized.”

The VCSO has received an $800,000 grant from the USDOJ. The funds will be allocated over three years to fund the task force.

According to the VCSO, the Central Coast acts as a “transit corridor for trafficking activity between major metropolitan areas.” Some of the aspects of Ventura County generally viewed as attractive — a popular tourist destination with conference venues — also make it attractive to traffickers. The migrant labor and transitory population also make the county ripe for this type of activity and highlights the fact that human trafficking is not always about selling sex but includes forced work of all kinds.

Federal data shows that up to about 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year for the purposes of being exploited. That number does not include residents of the U.S. who become victims of trafficking here. While 98 percent of those forced into commercial sex work are young girls and women, about 45 percent of victims forced into other types of labor are men.

Torres said that in 2019 there were about 18 victims of human trafficking in the county that have been connected with resources. “Nine arrests have been made and approximately 10 investigations total have been conducted or are continuing to be investigated.” Torres emphasized, “It is important to note that not all human trafficking is just commercial sex.”

She pointed to information at the Polaris Project (www.polarisproject.com) that highlights living and working conditions to be aware of: unpaid work, being paid only through tips, not allowed breaks, unable to pay off a large debt. Conditions may also exist at the victims’ living area and can include opaque windows or bars on the windows. Workers who live and work at the same location and experience verbal and/or physical abuse from their supervisors could be victims of trafficking. Some signs like injuries or physical restraint are obvious. Others, such as not being in control of their own money, mandatory work quotas or an employer insisting on being present when they speak to others, can indicate the employer may have undue control of the individual’s life.

The task force includes the formation of a panel of leaders from local law enforcement departments and advocacy organizations tasked with assessing the issue from a local perspective, building public awareness and developing victim-centered resources and services. Informed citizens and businesses can be key to identifying incidents of trafficking and saving victims.

Ventura County Coalition Against Human Trafficking

In 2015, April De Pretis co-founded a coalition of agencies and organizations to combine resources and expertise in combating the issue of trafficking locally. The Ventura County Coalition Against Human Trafficking (VCCAHT) includes Children and Family Services, Forever Found, Interface Children and Family Services, Women of Substance and Men of Honor and Youth with a Mission Ventura, as well as the FBI, Oxnard Police Department, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Ventura County Behavioral Health, Ventura County District Attorney, Ventura County Probation Agency, Ventura County Sheriff’s Office and the Ventura Police Department. VCCAHT will be a key part of the task force, working on several fronts in the county to ensure new state laws are being implemented and enforced.

Since 2013, certain businesses and locations are required to hang an information poster about human trafficking. State Senate Bill No. 1193 (SB1193) aimed to get information out “where victims and people who may come in contact with victims may see it,” said De Pretis. In 2017 State Assembly Bill No. 260 (AB260), provided additional notice requirements. She has been working with local police chiefs, mayors and others to ensure the posters — in English, Spanish and Mandarin — are hung in hotels, adult and sex-related businesses, airports, light rail stations, bus stations, urgent care offices, emergency rooms, farm labor contractors, massage parlors and private job recruitment centers. She said local law enforcement has been a “tremendous help,” actually delivering the posters, provided by the coalition, to local establishments.

Penalties for not complying with SB1193 and AB260 start with a $1,000 fine, then $500 for further violations.

(Correction: Online version corrected Jan. 23, 2020, regarding SB1193 and AB260).

“California has some good laws, but we really need to make sure we are implementing them, otherwise there is no point in having a law,” said De Pretis.

She points to another important law, SB970, effective Jan. 1, 2020, which requires “hotels and motels to provide training on human trafficking to any employees that will possibly come in contact with a victim.” She has been putting feet to the ground, going out to the hotels to help them schedule trainings. The coalition provides the training at no cost to the hotel. She said there are about 92 hotels in the county, and so far only about a dozen have completed the training. “My goal is to hit every one.”

De Pretis has been meeting with CEOs and management of local hotels and with the regional hospitality association, and she is making headway. The training offered through the coalition has three main parts: the coalition discusses the legislation around trafficking, law enforcement discusses the crime and Interface Children and Family Services provides information on services for victims and what to do when you think someone is being trafficked.

But there is still a stigma around hotels not wanting to be too vocal about this issue, evidenced by the fact that only four hotels wanted to be mentioned for this story. 

Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village, Four Points by Sheraton Ventura Harbor Resort, Holiday Inn Express and Suites Ventura Harbor and the Ventura Beach Marriott Hotel have all worked with the coalition to provide training to employees. Another high-end hotel in the county conducted a two-day training in early January, but declined to be interviewed or mentioned in this story. “I’m really proud of them,” said De Pretis. The hotel reached out to her last year prior to the law taking effect to ensure it was in compliance.

“Honestly, there are a lot of hotels [and people] in our county that are in denial that human trafficking is even here. Would you want a customer to know human trafficking could be happening in your hotel?” De Pretis emphasized that the trafficking does not have anything, in most cases, to do with the hotel, but that properly trained employees can be the key to saving a life. “The more that we can train [those] who work in the hotel themselves, the more eyes to watch out for victims.”

When asked why she is involved with this work, De Pretis responded, “Because I am all about justice. When someone feels they have the audacity to use someone else’s body for work or force them into sexual acts, that is just wrong. It’s black and white to me.”  

She said a major part of the training is to educate about all the ways a person can be controlled by others. “Sex trafficking is not the only possibility; labor trafficking happens. The hotels themselves may not even know it.” De Pretis explained that a “third party” could be trafficking individuals working at the hotel, with the money earned going to that third party. “We make sure the hotel knows to look for the signs, and what you do” when you see them.

In 2019 the coalition hosted a summit focused on the fact that men and boys survive trafficking, too. The 2020 summit, scheduled for September, will focus on labor trafficking.

“Our body is the only thing that we really own. It’s our body. I’m really for those that feel trapped, and need someone to see them,” said De Pretis. “So often the victims are right under our nose, we see them every day and don’t know it.”

 

To request help or report suspected human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text “help” to BeFree (233733). 

In Ventura County, the public can dial 211 to access the 24-hour hotline operated by Interface Family and Child Services, a partner on the Human Trafficking Task Force.

Ventura County Coalition Against Human Trafficking: www.vccaht.org.