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Report Sheds Light on the Prevalence of Domestic Child Sex Trafficking in Santa Barbara County

Researchers compile data showing 45 survivors and 461 more considered 'highly vulnerable' for abuse

Kyli Larson helps present the results of a report looking into domestic child sex trafficking in Santa Barbara County.
Kyli Larson helps present the results of a report looking into domestic child sex trafficking in Santa Barbara County. (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

New research shows there are 45 children who are survivors of domestic sex trafficking in Santa Barbara County, with 80 more suspected cases and 461 children considered “highly vulnerable” to the odious practice. 

What county agencies will do with that information to combat the growing problem was the topic of discussion Thursday afternoon in a meeting at the County District Attorney’s Office in downtown Santa Barbara.

Members of the county’s Human Sex Trafficking Task Force, which was created to step up prosecution of pimps and so-called “shot callers,” focused on the youngest, most defenseless population — children under the age of 18.

For the first time, researchers released results of a needs assessment of domestic child sex trafficking in the county.

Before now, the number of children survivors of sex trafficking was unknown, largely because the county has no agency or tool to track that information, said Kary O’Brien, one of two researchers who worked on the report.

“Children do not readily disclose that this is happening to them,” she said, adding that the children may not even be aware, since abusers are often someone close to them.

O’Brien said the assessment aimed to find the prevalence of child sex trafficking and the gap between current county protocols and the services that survivors say they need. 

Through interviews conducted last fall — and with the help of 22 participants from agencies including law enforcement, social services and more — researchers compiled data on 45 child survivors located through probation, mental health services and other county departments.

One boy and 44 girls make up the county survivors, O’Brien said, adding that more were suspected or considered vulnerable based on different online escort advertisements. Most of those originated in the Tri-County area, she said. 

Most traffickers were men ages 18 to 30 — one was a 19-year-old female — and nine of them had sexual relations with the children, the report said. Six were county residents and six were from out of area.

Some found child victims through Facebook or by doing drugs, and some girls thought their pimps were their boyfriends, O’Brien said.

Attendees took notes and were asked to examine the capacity each of their agencies might have to help.

The top children trafficking survivor needs included trauma-informed care and therapy, housing, collaboration between agencies, designated staff to ensure consistent care and drug and alcohol treatment, according to researcher Kyli Larson of Uffizi Order, a local nonprofit that works to help marginalized populations.

“We have some options, but our resources are limited,” Larson said.

The only dedicated county resource available now is one advocate in the Victim-Witness Assistance Program, with no housing currently dedicated to trafficking victims.

The report’s No. 1 recommendation was to take a survivor-centric approach, understanding each child’s case is different, so no one-size-fits-all solution exists.

Allocating resources for the task force was another key find, which is why the District Attorney’s Office has applied for a $1.5 million federal grant.

O’Brien said the DA would find out in August whether the taskforce will receive the three-year Office for Victims of Crime funds.

Forming a core human trafficking task force to be proactive instead of reactive — with far fewer than the whole’s 70 members — would be helpful, she said, along with creating subcommittees with goals and deadlines to meet them.

“It is critical that we work together,” O’Brien said, noting that the more people who realize human trafficking happens locally, the better for future prevention.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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