Sex trafficking enslaves women and girls

The Modesto Bee

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but, sadly, slavery is alive and thriving here in Stanislaus County in the form of human trafficking.

America has always been a land of opportunity, drawing generations of immigrants. But this dream can rapidly turn into a nightmare if some of the new arrivals are tricked by unscrupulous individuals.

John Vanek was the featured speaker at a recent presentation on human trafficking in Stanislaus County. Before he retired from the San Jose Police Department, Vanek ran a human trafficking task force. Now he’s a consultant and author, having written “The Essential Abolitionist: What You Need To Know About Human Trafficking & Modern Slavery.”

His talk was an eye-opener. I had naively assumed all human trafficking victims were smuggled into this country. To my surprise, I learned that 72 percent of trafficked persons are American citizens.

In addition, statistics provided by Without Permission, a Modesto nonprofit that provides victims assistance, show that 46 percent of victims admit to being trafficked at age 17 or younger. Sadly, 17 is the age the victim might start seeking services. According to humantrafficking.org, trafficking begins by age 12 for the average victim.

Vanek believes a victim-centered approach is vital in assisting trafficking victims.

“In a victim-centered approach, meeting the victim’s needs, wants, and desires takes precedence; not the prosecution of the offender,” wrote Vanek in an email.

In a story that snowballed nationwide, a 15-year old girl was videotaped providing sex to several teen boys in a high school bathroom. Later investigations showed this girl was a trafficking victim at age 13 and had been unable to access proper treatment due to its unavailability in her community. In other words, there was no one to help her deal with the trauma she had experienced.

“Trafficking is very complex, and the relationship between the trafficker and victim are complex,” Vanek said. Providing help for the victim should be the strategy that is “embraced all of the time,” he said.

Vanek made another point: “It is not unreasonable for a victim of trafficking to have a dozen or more specific needs that can only be met by a variety of victim-services providers.”

Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus is one such local provider. May Rico, Haven’s executive director, said “We have always worked with trafficked people,” and there has been a seismic “shift in the definition of sexual exploitation.”

Rico said “lobbying efforts must revolve around education regarding the dynamic” of this exploitation. Summarized, exploitation means the victim has no choice in the matter. Rico added, “This means that one person directly benefits from exerting power and control over another.”

Though the victim might have an emotional investment in the relationship, the trafficker sees the victim simply as a financial investment. Unfortunately, the amount of money involved can be astronomical. Young girls are the targets of choice, with shopping malls being primary hunting grounds for traffickers.

The fact that this type of exploitation is thriving in our county should be a call to action, not a call to judgment. Don’t be a bystander.

Having abolished it 150 years ago, we all must fight to make certain there are no new paths to slavery in our nation.

Kathleen Rowe-Glendon is a former Bee visiting editor and a community activist. Email columns@modbee.com.