Sitting in a dusty-red former brothel in downtown Santa Cruz a few weeks ago, Carmel Jud softly shatters my naive view of the world with a fact: sex trafficking of children happens in Santa Cruz County; and accessing it is as easy as typing a web page into a browser.
About two years ago, the founder of Rising International got a call about a local 13-year-old girl who’d been sold by her father. “I realized I was more connected to resources in India than on the Central Coast,” says Jud, who immediately began emailing other organizations and individuals who could help. Ultimately, her efforts resulted in the relaunch of a coalition begun years ago by two nuns in Santa Cruz that had lost its momentum. Today, the Coalition to End Human Trafficking in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties is an active network of more than 40 Central Coast organizations, businesses, law enforcement and governmental agencies.
As the #MeToo movement gains traction, conditions may be prime for a social awakening around human trafficking—whose most basic definition is when a person is made to work under conditions of force, fraud or coercion. For minors, those elements do not need to be proven—they are assumed.
On Saturday, March 24, the coalition hosts a free conference entitled Human Trafficking Happens Here: Understanding Child Sexual Exploitation. The conference will include several survivors’ voices, which the coalition places at the center of its work, as well as a workshop for youth 12 and up that includes education around healthy relationships vs. red flags of potential exploitation—as traffickers, or “pimps,” span all demographics and levels of privilege, and often falsely present themselves initially as a boyfriend.
Up until 2016, the legal protocol in California was to arrest, charge, and generally send minors found to be victims of commercial sexual exploitation to juvenile hall. Senate Bill 794 now prevents Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) survivors who are forced into prostitution, solicitation or loitering by their traffickers or buyers, from being arrested for those crimes.
“We have a new paradigm of understanding this as a very traumatic crime, a very serious crime, a crime that affects children, affects vulnerable people. But that is a new paradigm. For far too long, the kind of mentality around this issue was that this was the world’s oldest profession, that the stigma belongs on the women, the young people, the vulnerable people who are ‘choosing’ to do this,” says Deborah Pembrook, who has chaired the coalition since it began in 2016. We’re sitting in her sunny office in Salinas, at the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center—a key member of the coalition—where she works as an outreach advocate. She’s also on the executive committee of the National Survivor Network.
That all-too-common mentality, adds Pembrook, serves to treat human trafficking as a nuisance issue—something that has always happened, “just not in our neighborhood.” But what came to the fore first when looking into trafficking locally was commercial sexual exploitation of children, says Pembrook, and it’s more prevalent in our community than we see broadly.
Between January 1, 2015 and Dec. 31, 2016 a prevalence study within the tri-county region of Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey identified 91 children, youth and young adults as survivors of CSEC. During that same time period, 690 were identified as at-risk or vulnerable of experiencing CSEC. Released by the Human Services Department of County of Santa Cruz, Family and Children’s Services, the study also found that the age of survivors’ first commercial sex exploitation ranged from five to 18 years, with 17 percent having experienced the first exploitation at the age of 10 or younger. Almost half had been exploited in a home, and a quarter in a hotel or motel. Boyfriends and biological family members were the most frequently identified exploiters of CSEC survivors.
A recent local trend Pembrook notes, is with youth, often in their teens, becoming vulnerable to trafficking after a deportation occurs in their extended family. “So things that really impact communities can impact those youth and can impact their vulnerability to trafficking,” says Pemrbook.
Now in her 40s, Pembrook left her tech job a couple of years ago to devote herself full time to education and outreach around human trafficking. From the mid-’70s to the late ’80s, and beginning when she was a young child in the midwest, Pembrook was brought by a trusted adult to both low-end roadside motel rooms and high end hotels in the neighborhood, and sold. She was able to successfully go into hiding at 17 and moved to California at 18, changing her name. But she questions whether today’s survivors have the same ability to get free. “Because privacy is very different now. You can be found easier, and traffickers have better tools now for tracking people.” These are people who go to bed at night thinking about how to make money, exploit, and completely obliterate a person’s sense of self with tried and true tactics, she adds. “We want to be smart and have an approach that’s really grounded.”
That approach includes trauma-informed language that removes the shame from the victim, and places it more accurately on the perpetrator. “It was that shift in language, of understanding that my experience wasn’t just this language that was so stigmatizing to me—that it was human trafficking, that it was modern slavery, that really opened up the door for my own healing process,” says Pembrook, of a realization that came in 2007.
Trauma literacy will be addressed at the conference—and an understanding of how deeply a survivor may be traumatized, as well as the complexities of “trauma bonding,” which is a better way to describe what was once referred to as Stockholm Syndrome, is an important component of today’s outreach education and therapy for survivors.
“It could be someone who goes to middle school during the day and has a very different life at night,” says Pembrook. “It could be someone who in past times could be thought of just a regular runaway, or a delinquent.” Exploitation of a minor is a mandated report, she reminds, so if something just doesn’t seem right, it’s best to make a call.
While the prevalence study reported survivors as predominantly female U.S. natural-born citizens, Pembrook points out that while human trafficking is absolutely a women’s issue, it also impacts boys, men, and transgender people, who are particularly vulnerable because of less access to other kinds of employment options, and high instances of homelessness.
Unlike drug dealers, human traffickers can profit over and over. It’s a billion-dollar industry, and an estimated seven out of 10 CSEC survivors are trafficked on backpage.com, whose multi-million-dollar annual profits have continued to grow over the years (more information on this in the documentary I Am Jane Doe).
But Pembrook is careful to clarify that not all pornography, and not all commercial sex, involves modern day slavery—though they are deeply intertwined. That’s why the voices of commercial sex workers are ever important in the anti-trafficking movement, as are the voices of survivors of exploitation. “We also know that women are becoming, more and more, buyers of pornography and other forms of commercial sex, so that is an important piece that we also look at,” says Pembrook. “That there would be no commercial sex if there weren’t buyers.”
Catie Hart, a human trafficking survivor and expert who now trains thousands in law enforcement, social work, juvenile halls and youth trainings across 33 California counties, says it’s impossible to empower women and girls without teaching them about the trafficker. “Pimps almost always fraudulently present themselves as a boyfriend,” says Hart, who was 20 when she was lured that way into a seven-year nightmare of sleep deprivation, abuse and torture.
“Abusive relationships will not stop existing if operated from a standpoint that if we teach girls to be ‘smarter’ then domestic violence and human trafficking will go away,” says Hart. “This messaging puts all blame and assumes women are the ones who need to change. I have seen proof—men can ‘unlearn’ their violence.”
Like many survivors, she says she would have been able to escape sooner if she’d understood she was experiencing exploitation earlier on. She will lead a Safe and Sound Human Trafficking Prevention workshop for youth at the conference.
“Most curriculums teach that you should ask for help when you are in trouble, and that ‘you have to be smart enough not to be a victim’… If they do end up being trafficked, we are asking them to raise their hand and say they have been trading sex for money without a gun to their head, and that they feel stupid. We must stop asking ‘why did she stay’ and start asking ‘why does he abuse?’” says Hart.
Human Trafficking Happens Here: Understanding Child Sexual Exploitation is Noon-5 p.m. on Saturday, March 24 at Louden Nelson Center. More information on speakers, workshops, and free registration at coalitiontoendhumantrafficking.org.