Modesto group keeps up fight against human trafficking

Debbie Johnson is the founder of Modesto-based Without Permission, which fights human trafficking in Stanislaus County.
Debbie Johnson is the founder of Modesto-based Without Permission, which fights human trafficking in Stanislaus County. Without Permission

Debbie Johnson first learned about the severity of sex trafficking in 2007 at a luncheon in Northern California.

A woman shared a story describing slavery in Mexico, where she runs a faith-based nonprofit organization. The woman said buses would enter villages and pick up children who’d been purchased by companies for labor. But when the buses of kids would arrive, only the little boys would be allowed off. The girls had already been claimed by sex traffickers who’d bribed the bus drivers to turn a blind eye. The girls were kidnapped, used for pornography and sold into sex slavery. When the traffickers were finished with the girls, they were suffocated and tossed into mass graves.

“That was my introduction to sex trafficking,” Johnson recalled. “I’d never even heard of it before, but I literally had to walk out of the luncheon. I was just traumatized.”

A mother of three and a Modesto native, Johnson quickly recognized the need for local mobilization against slavery. She spent the next five years researching and praying for an answer. At the time, she served as a women’s pastor for The House Modesto, a Christian church, but her new-found knowledge and motivation to stamp out sex slavery led her into a different profession.

“In 2010, I shared the vision (of Without Permission) to the women I happened to be serving at the time,” Johnson recalled. “That night, I had three women come up to me and share their personal stories with what would’ve been considered trafficking over the last 30 years, right here in Modesto. Those types of things solidified that this was something God wanted us to do, that it was here, and I needed to move forward with what God had put in my heart.”

As a detective, I have found Without Permission to not only be an asset in human trafficking cases, but a necessity.

Steven Anderson, Modesto Police Department Special Victims Unit, on the Without Permission website

In 2012, Johnson left her post as a pastor to launch Without Permission, a nonprofit committed to sex trafficking victims within Stanislaus County. The organization works to combat sex trafficking and heal the people who’ve been scarred by it. Without Permission works in three areas, she said: prevention, prosecution and protection.

“We navigate victims through six key pillars of restoration: education, work, criminal justice, shelter or placement, personal care and faith. If shelter is one of their needs, we do the research. We transport them or fly them out of state and make relationships with where they’re going to be placed,” Johnson explained. “But 40 percent of our victims stay within the Central Valley. So they don’t need placement. But they need criminal justice support or medical help or counseling.”

Since its formation in 2012, Without Permission has helped more than 100 trafficking victims, Johnson said.

Within its first year, Without Permission handled 17 cases. By 2014, that number jumped to 24. Johnson reported there were 28 cases within the first four months of 2015.

Despite being outlawed in the U.S. 150 years ago, slavery is a $32 billion industry and rapidly expanding. It is the third largest international crime industry, and the U.S. Department of State predicts it will soon “surpass the illicit trade of guns and narcotics.” Human trafficking imprisons nearly 20 million people worldwide as sex slaves, servants and forced laborers.

Organizations across the nation are working – often in cooperation – to put an end to slavery. In Washington, D.C., Terry FitzPatrick works as the director of communications for Free the Slaves, an organization similar to Without Permission. FitzPatrick said he is optimistic that a united effort will help end trafficking once and for all.

I am so thankful for Debbie Johnson and her vision and passion to start Without Permission. Without her reaching out to District Attorney Birgit Fladager, we would not have launched our Human Trafficking Task Force.

Carol Shipley, assistant district attorney, on the Without Permission website

“There’s no question in my mind that slavery will end,” FitzPatrick said. “Even though there are tens of millions of people in slavery, it’s the smallest percentage of the world population than ever before. It’s right on the edge of extinction. We will eradicate slavery. It’s just a question of how quickly.”

Jasmine Marino, a former victim from Massachusetts, can attest that slavery poses a very real problem in contemporary times. Trafficked sexually at only 19 and held in captivity for five years, Marino now is a mother and resilient survivor. “I built my life up slowly, very organically. For me, it was surrendering and being healed and helping others,” she said. “I find that joy and emotional fulfillment in my life when I share (my story) with other women.”

Marino’s story reminds us that victims can heal from such trauma with love and unconditional support. As far as prevention goes, she urges girls to realize their potential and inner strength, as traffickers feed off vulnerability and manipulate it into submission.

Within the Central Valley, a third of all reported victims have had contact with juvenile hall, probation or foster care, Johnson said. Kids who feel neglected, insecure or unloved are more susceptible to become trafficking victims.

And the majority of slaves are children. The Department of Justice lists the average age of inception into trafficking as 12 to 13.

“When you talk about culture, the demographic will change based on geography,” Johnson said. “(It’s not) just a white problem, a black problem, a poverty problem.”

Johnson, while confident of the eventual eradication of slavery, recognizes the need for immediate action. “That’s the hardest part for me: knowing that if we don’t do something, if we don’t change drastically, we will self-destruct.

“Slavery is such a big topic that the community at large often doesn’t know where to start,” she said. “That’s really been my mandate: to mobilize the community at the local level. Not just to talk about it or host a training, but to get people involved. I believe every time we speak, we save lives. Every time. And that’s a great, great thing.”

Kara Liu is a senior at Beyer High School. For a larger report on slavery she wrote for her school publication The Lantern, including Q&A interviews with Marino and Fitzpatrick, see

Learn more

Without Permission, the Modesto Police Department and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church will hold a human trafficking action summit Sept. 17 at Modesto Centre Plaza. The event starts at 6:30 p.m. For more information or to RSVP, call 209-567-2433 or email