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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 9:17 am | Fair 47º


Santa Barbara County Supervisors Get Update on Programs for Child Sex-Trafficking Survivors

Santa Barbara County agencies have confirmed there are dozens of survivors of sex trafficking locally, and are working on collaborative approaches to prevent exploitation and provide services to the victims.

District Attorney Joyce Dudley spearheaded a task force in 2013, and a group produced a report on Domestic Child Sex Trafficking in June 2015.

The county needs to do everything it can to protect children from exploitation, and provide services to prevent further victimization, Dudley told the Board of Supervisors during a presentation Tuesday.

Santa Barbara County is a hub for sex trafficking: when someone uses force fraud or coercion to induce a commercial sex act or causes a minor to commit a commercial sex act in exchange for money, drugs, food, shelter or clothes.

Domestic child sex trafficking means the children are American, and many are Santa Barbara County residents. 

“Once individuals are sex trafficked, their average life expectancy is estimated at only another 7-10 years, with homicide and AIDS being the top causes of death,” according to the county’s report.

“According to an FBI victim specialist for Los Angeles, the Central Coast is a hub for sex trafficking, since until recently the crime was rarely identified, investigated or prosecuted. Recent investigations and victim testimony have revealed that Santa Barbara County is a natural transit corridor for trafficking activity between major metropolitan areas to the south and north.”

The DA’s Office has prosecuted seven human-trafficking cases since 2013, with three people convicted, two on trial now, and two more pending trial, Dudley said.

The report presented recommendations for prevention and treatment, since a one-dimensional support system is not effective, and the victims are often reluctant to get services, said Megan Rheinschild of the DA’s Office.

Victims have significant fear of and loyalty to the exploiters, she said.

Most survivors the county sees, girls ages 11-18, have histories of trauma back to childhood, have grown up in the foster care system, and haven’t had the benefits of forming healthy relationships with adults, she said.

“The exploiter offers love, affection and material goods, and they’re an easy target to recruit.”

Santa Barbara County agencies found 45 confirmed cases of sexual human trafficking in minors between 2012 and 2014, according to a report published last year. Demand was also documented, with an observed 675 online escort ads seen within two weeks.

The report found another 80 suspected child survivors of sex trafficking, who have significant risk factors but don’t come out and say it, and 461 children who are vulnerable.

Vulnerable populations include children who grow up in the foster care system, or have a history of truancy, homelessness, or involvement with the juvenile justice system.  

Of the 45 confirmed cases, 44 percent of them were found by mental health staff in Juvenile Hall, another 42 percent through law enforcement and the rest through child welfare services.

Recommendations from last year’s report include finding more emergency, transitional and permanent housing for victims, proactive investigations, collaboration between agencies, substance-abuse treatment for children, and creating a centralized data management system.

The CSEC Court, Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, is a collaborative effort between county agencies to find the best treatment plan for girls on probation, said Devin Drake, deputy director of adult & children services in the Social Services Department.

Lack of resources is a challenge since not all the treatment interventions are reimbursable by Medi-Cal, and the county’s RISE grant program only lasts for three years.

The Department of Behavioral Wellness RISE program – Resiliency Interventions for Sexual Exploitation – provides services for physical, social, psychological and biological needs.

Programs need to offer safety, shelter, food, clothing and health care, said RISE program head Lisa Conn.

“If we take care of those needs, then those traffickers have less to work with to exploit them,” Conn said.

The county is planning a daytime drop-in center in Santa Maria, and is partnering with the faith community to look at funding apartments for survivors who are over 18, she said.

Behavioral Wellness staff have trained more than 500 people in CSEC 101, including outreach to local hotels and motels on how to spot the signs of child sex trafficking, Conn said.

To further develop its programs, the county is bringing on sex trafficking survivor Carissa Phelps, public speaker and author of Runaway Girl, to train staff on resiliency training, which is a deprogramming process for survivors, Conn said.

Phelps will also train other survivors to become mentors, she said.

“You can’t do this without survivors helping develop your program.”

People convicted of trafficking minors can face three years to life in prison, said Mag Nicola of the District Attorney’s Office.

A trial against two men accused of trafficking a 16-year-old girl began in Santa Maria Superior Court Tuesday, and last March, Brannon Lawrence Pitcher was sentenced to 28 years to life in prison for forcing a 16-year-old girl into prostitution. 

“It’s clearly an issue that we had no idea the extent of,” said Third District county Supervisor Doreen Farr, who asked for an annual update on program efforts and plans for funding once the RISE grant runs out.

On Monday, a bill passed the state Assembly that would allow judges to consider vulnerability of the victim when sentencing people convicted of human trafficking cases.

AB 2513, presented by Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Carpinteria, would consider it an aggravating factor if “defendants recruited, enticed, or obtained the victim from a shelter or placement that is designed to serve runaway youth, foster children, homeless persons, or victims of human trafficking or domestic violence.”

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli 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.

Needs Assessment of Domestic Child Sex Trafficking in Santa Barbara County by Giana Magnoli

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