Technology provides a tool for predators looking to take advantage of youths, but the message at a recent forum in Lompoc emphasized that educating others about the dangers of human trafficking can be the best weapon in the fight.
More than 40 people attended the three-hour forum focused on human trafficking; sexual extortion, also known as “sextortion;” and other forms of exploitation.
The event culminated with a call for action that encouraged attendees to contact state lawmakers to urge passage of legislation targeting human trafficking.
“Education is the key to prevention,” said Ann McCarty, executive director of the North County Rape Crisis and Child Protection Center.
“As adults we should always be working to up our game because the predators are upping their game every day.”
Lompoc police Lt. Chip Arias echoed the call.
“Talk to people,” he said. “The best way to help is to educate others.”
Predators target vulnerable people, including homeless residents and foster children.
While sex trafficking draws the attention, District Attorney John Savrnoch said law enforcement also targets those involved in labor trafficking, which he called a modern form of slavery.
He reminded those present that law enforcement officers won’t ask a victim’s citizenship status. Some criminals try to use immigration standing to control a young victim or families, he added.
“Everybody comes to us as a citizen, as a victim,” Savrnoch said. “I don’t ever want anybody to use that level of blackmail to keep people from coming forward.
“Again, we don’t know it unless people come forward and there is no negative consequence to somebody coming to us even if they don’t have papers.”
Arias, a father of four, didn’t mince words, telling parents they regularly should be looking at cellphones and other electronic devices to monitor their children’s activity.
“Be a nosy parent and your kids will thank you for it later,” he said, adding that one of his sons was playing an online game and called him to say a stranger had tried to start a conversation.
“That’s how close it gets to home,” Arias said.
He encouraged parents to normalize conversations with their children on what might be considered tough topics.
“Worst thing that can ever happen is the cops find out that something’s going on with your kids before you find out,” Arias said. “Because by the time we find out, it’s often too late.”
Opal Singleton-Hendershot, leader of One Million Kids and training and outreach coordinator for the Riverside County Anti-Human-Trafficking Task Force, said predators’ new approach involves telemarketing centers in Third World countries working to get pictures or videos of American youths in compromising situations. Once the pictures are obtained, the predators pressure youths for money in a blackmail scheme.
“I believe that sextortion is the super highway for future sex trafficking victims,” Singleton-Hendersot said.
“A lot of our society does not understand the impact of what happens when a child is violated through social media exploitation.”
Sextortion victims often are popular students whose shame and fear lead them to commit suicide, she added.
“I’m going to tell you the crime of sextortion will impact a child for the rest of their life,” she added. “It will change who they believe they are.”
The hardest part of the fight is convincing people, both youths and parents, that they could become victims, she said.
Lucy Thoms-Harrington of the American Association of University Women Lompoc-Vandenberg Branch outlined some human trafficking legislation pending in Sacramento focused on social media and accountability.
Assembly Bill 1394 would hold social media platforms liable for online sexual exploitation and trafficking of children while using code words, and state Senate Bill 287 aims to prohibit companies from using algorithms that can cause children to become addicted to their platforms.
“The meteoric rise of trafficking has occurred exponentially with over 55% of sexual trafficking victims coming from online platforms through social interaction,” Thoms-Harrington said.
“The social media platform is self policing. And self policing isn’t getting it done.”
She urged people to contact their legislators, including stat Sen. Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, and Assemblyman Gregg Hart, D-Santa Barbara, to urge support for the bills.
Several Rotary Clubs in Northern Santa Barbara County, including the Lompoc club and two from San Luis Obispo County, hosted the event, which had a number of sponsors and was the second of four planned sessions on human trafficking.