Before 2013, when an assessment took place, it was not believed that human trafficking occurred in Santa Barbara County. 

“The main misconception is that it doesn’t happen in Santa Barbara County,” said Rita McGaw, a supervisor for the Victim/Witness Assistance Program. “And then, you know, secondary to that would be that if it happens in Santa Barbara County, it’s not Santa Barbara County residents, which is not true, especially with our minors, or our seaside population. They’re very often local kids.”

The District Attorney’s Office established the Human Trafficking Task Force to identify survivors of all types of human trafficking, investigate and prosecute sex trafficking and labor trafficking cases at local, state, tribal and federal levels, and address the individualized needs of survivors.

In 2015, McGaw and Megan Rheinschild, director of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program, co-wrote a grant with the Sheriff’s Office to do training, outreach, survivor services and prosecute traffickers.

The task force was a response to reports that Santa Barbara County was a corridor for human trafficking between the Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego and The Central Valley, Rheinschild said.

“We decided it was necessary to convene experts in the field and invited regional leaders from Alameda, Los Angeles and elsewhere to bring training to our law enforcement, social service and nonprofit providers,” Rheinschild told Noozhawk.

Last summer, the task force partnered with the nonprofit Kingdom Causes to create a three-year strategic plan to tackle labor and sex trafficking in the region.

“The task force kind of reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we’d love for your team to help us coordinate more,’” Jeff Schaffer with Kingdom Causes said.

The task force would educate those who are most likely to encounter trafficked individuals by sharing information on where to go for support and how to not to re-traumatize individuals.

Schaffer said medical providers and teachers are two professional groups likely to encounter someone being trafficked.

“Medical providers might be the first to identify (a person being trafficked),” Schaffer said. “Somebody might be a homeless service provider, it might be a neighborhood clinic, might be an ER.”

In addition to education, a large focus for the task force is also to destigmatize what human trafficking looks like.

“The majority of trafficking is actually labor trafficking, not sex trafficking,” Schaffer said.

The difference between labor trafficking and sex trafficking is that sex trafficking is selling sex for some monetary trade, and labor trafficking is exploiting a worker using force, fraud or coercion in domestic servitude, or some other form of labor.

At least 45 child survivors of human trafficking were identified in Santa Barbara County between 2012 and 2014. Additionally, 80 children were suspected of being trafficked and 461 children were considered vulnerable to domestic child sex trafficking. 

Kayla Petersen, a program coordinator for Kingdom Causes, said the task force will focus primarily on an educational strategy as well as identifying more potentially trafficked individuals.

“There are tons of partners who are already working with folks countywide, who we may know are being labor trafficked, but haven’t fully been able to make inroads,” Petersen said. “You don’t want to do harm to the individuals who are already being exploited by blowing up their source of income.

“There’s just tons of complexities there.”

The task force also brought onboard members who are survivors of human trafficking.

Petersen said the survivor would work with an expert “so we’re not overly taxing and tokenizing that individual.” 

It is important not to identify someone being trafficked without their knowledge or consent, or label them as a victim, Petersen said. That’s why those who have experienced trafficking are referred to as “survivors.”

“I didn’t want to start a leadership team without someone who’s experienced (human trafficking) in our system,” Schaffer said. “They can be, they can be straightforward with us. They can use their voice and be heard.”

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Grace Kitayama, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Grace Kitayama is a Noozhawk staff writer.