When she was 12, Brianna Williams was a driven, young entrepreneur who wrote a 30-page business plan for her future party-planning endeavor. But by the time she was 15, she was being trafficked by a man more than twice her age and had forgotten all the dreams she once had of owning her own business.
“I know people have this stigma that human-trafficking victims come from a bad background, but I came from a pretty good background,” Williams said. She never imagined she would be sold for sex or that human trafficking was even something that existed in the United States.
“I knew nothing about it until it was too late,” she said.
Human trafficking has been a problem for decades in the United States, with California leading the nation in reported incidents. But only recently has the issue come to the forefront.
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“I think it is like any of the crimes against people, like domestic and child abuse, it takes a little bit of time for people to recognize it,” said Carol Shipley, executive director of the Stanislaus Family Justice Center.
Experts say changes in state and federal law and people like Williams coming forward to tell their stories have spotlighted the issue, resulting in more government funding and the creation of nonprofit organizations to combat the problem.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 was the first comprehensive federal law to address the trafficking of people, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. It was five more years before California enacted its first human-trafficking law, which since has been expanded and beefed up with tougher penalties under voter-approved Proposition 35.
In 2011, Debbie Johnson, who founded the anti-trafficking nonprofit group Without Permission, held the first training in Stanislaus County on identifying the victims and the perpetrators of human trafficking. It was attended by more than 50 officials from local and federal law enforcement agencies.
“Thirty days from that training, we opened the first human-trafficking case in Stanislaus County,” Johnson said.
She said the issue gained momentum from there as she continued to train law enforcement in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. She said law enforcement would identify or rescue a human-trafficking victim within a week of the trainings during the first four years they were held.
Viewed as criminal, not victim
Williams said she wished the law enforcement with whom she had contact during the three years she was trafficked in the Bay Area would have been trained in identifying the crime. She wished the police would have recognized her as a victim and got her help, but she said there was no “miraculous” rescue in which the police busted down a door and carried her to safety, despite being entered into a missing persons database and featured on a Bay Area news station as a missing, at-risk youth.
Instead, she said she was arrested once for prostitution then released from jail, back to the control of her exploiter.
That was in 2011. Today, the outcome might have been different.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last year decriminalizing prostitution for minors, continuing the trend of evolving laws so that there are greater penalties for the trafficker and so that the people exploited by them are treated as victims instead of criminals.
Johnson said trafficking victims often have been viewed through the “filter of rebellious, hypersexualized, drug-addicted” youth instead of considering the physical and emotional abuse and brainwashing they have endured.
Many people still view these victims in that light, she said, but at least locally, law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office have turned a page.
Bolstered by new laws and government funding to combat and prevent human trafficking, local agencies are better able to address the problem.
Three Stanislaus County agencies last year received a two-year, $685,970 grant from the California Office of Emergency Services to provide assistance to human-trafficking victims including counseling, case management, shelter, transportation to and from appointments, legal assistance and other supportive services. Trafficking also can include victims of forced labor and other slavery, and the grant can serve them as well but it is targeted toward the county’s biggest trafficking problem: sexual exploitation.
It pays for a full-time caseworker and a shelter service family advocate, as well as part-time legal assistance. It also reserves one shelter bed at the Hutton House for juvenile human-trafficking victims and pays for expenses associated with a newly created transitional housing shelter in Turlock run by Haven.
More than 80 victims were served under the grant in the first year.
A range of cases
“When you talk about human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, you have a continuum,” said Haven Executive Director May Rico. “At one end of the continuum, we have people previously referred to as prostitutes, but you also have people who were sexually exploited in a relationship.”
Haven always has served victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, but after learning more about human trafficking, Rico said staff realized that they were serving those victims as well, like women whose boyfriends forced them to have sex with other men for money or drugs.
“We thought of it as, ‘This is part of the sexual abuse,’ but not thinking it in terms of sexual exploitation,” Rico said. They now know that “creating the illusion of a relationship is a tactic that pimps use.”
Traffickers can control their victims through threats, coercion, use of force and fraud.
On the continuum there are extreme cases involving kidnapping and physical abuse and there are cases in which the victim is showered with gifts and attention by the trafficker who is profiting from her and usually eventually becomes abusive, Shipley said.
“It is hard to articulate and even to comprehend the brainwashing that takes place when a girl or woman is taken and put into human trafficking, to go out and become a prostitute or sell their body for money,” she said. “I can’t explain the psychology of it other than if you get beat enough times or have the negative consequences, or the opposite, and you are shown some affection or showered with gifts, that hooks that person in.”
Williams said the attention drew her, but her trafficker also eventually became abusive.
She met the man on a chat line when she was 15.
“We started off just talking; I told him how old I was,” Williams said. “He showed interest in me, and from there it just spiraled. He swept me off my feet and before I realized what was going on, it was too late.”
The man had touted himself and a CEO of a company, successful and wealthy. For the first two weeks after Williams ran away with him, she said he “wined and dined” her but then became physically abuse and the exploitation began.
“They are our children”
Johnson said the community should be proud of the progress made and the work done in Stanislaus County. But there still is much work to do, primarily in education and prevention.
She said many of the people who encounter sex trafficking victims – medical providers, educators, youth pastors, business owners, particularly in the hospitality industry – still do not know the signs to look for, and some still believe it is a problem that exists only outside of the U.S.
But Johnson said 78 percent of the victims Without Permission serves are from Stanislaus County, and nearly half of them are juveniles. “These are not kids from other states or other countries; they are our children.”
Since January, Stanislaus County law enforcement has arrested or issued warrants for five people in three cases of the human trafficking of local teenagers. All of the suspects are also teenagers, two under the age of 18.
The Sacramento-based anti-human-trafficking nonprofit 3 Strands Global, through its Protect program, is piloting curriculum for fifth-, seventh-, ninth- and 11th-graders that provides a comprehensive understanding of the dangers, signs and historical roots of human trafficking.
The pilot program provides funding to bring the curriculum to schools in 35 rural counties. Stanislaus is considered an urban county, but the program is available to all 58 counties; getting it here is a matter of funding.
Williams said if she had been educated about the signs of human trafficking, her life would have been different. The prodding questions about her family life, convincing her she needed only him, listening to her phone calls to family and friends after she left with him – all would have been red flags that he was isolating her as a means of control, she said.
Now 22, Williams shares her story with teenagers and young women and counsels parents about how to talk to their children about human trafficking.
She escaped the abuse as she neared adulthood.
“When I left, it was close to my 18th birthday, and I just thought, ‘This can’t be the rest of my life.’ ” she said. “Seeing things, heartbreaking things, out there in that life, I realized I didn’t want that for me. I had to do something.”
Williams moved away, eventually stopped answering phone calls from her exploiter and got a job doing laundry at a retirement home. She found help through an anti-trafficking organization called Love Never Fails, which provided her counseling and transportation and helped get her a better job as an assistant in accounting of a Bay Area company.
Through the counseling, she realized she had been victimized. One of the biggest challenges in getting victims the help they need is convincing them they are victims and are being exploited, Shipley said. Too often, they keep going back to their exploiters even after intervention.
Williams said she she now knows what happened to her was wrong and it wasn’t her fault. But she struggles with the word “victim.” She prefers “survivor.”
“I can’t even picture myself being that girl who I was,” she said. “I was brainwashed and broken so much that I couldn’t feel anything, I made myself so numb from all the pain abuse.”
Healing and dreaming
Williams eventually moved back home to the Sacramento-area and is again pursuing her dreams of owning her own businesses. She had several small businesses selling T-shirts, cleaning homes and the most successful: making and selling gourmet popcorn.
Williams still wants to own her own party-planning business someday, but her more immediate goal is to operate 10 successful businesses by the time she is 30 and employ other survivors.
For now, she used the popcorn business, Catrina’s Gourmet Popcorn, to start a dialogue about human trafficking when she meets with clients and attends speaking events for 3 Strands Global, which will be presenting at a Victims’ Rights Rally & Family Safety Fair on Saturday.
Williams said speaking about her experience was scary at first but it eventually became part of her healing process. “I am a voice for the voiceless,” she said.
To report suspected human trafficking call your local police department. The National Human Trafficking hotline also offers round-the-clock access to a safe space to report tips, seek services, and ask for help. Call the hotline at 888-373-7888.
Learn More about Human Trafficking from the co-founder of 3 Strands Global and hear from another survivor at this the Victims’ Rights Rally & Family Safety Fair on Saturday.
When: Saturday, April 8 from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Where: Courthouse lawn at 1100 I Street, Modesto
There will also be victims’ rights and family safety information; special musical performances and a DJ; a free BBQ lunch; popcorn, snow cones and cotton candy; firetrucks, police cars, SWAT and K9 units; face painting and balloon animals; and enchanted fairytale processes, McGruff the crime dog and other local mascots.
For more information call the Victim Services Unit at 209-525-5541