The words “human trafficking” may conjure up images of vulnerable victims from far-flung countries, but Santa Barbara County officials warn it’s a growing problem here. In fact, they say it’s particularly insidious because many of the cases they’re seeing are minors being trafficked for sex.

The problem is growing at such a rate that the District Attorney’s Office recently formed a Human Trafficking Task Force to aggressively tackle the issue. The group includes more than 70 members representing law enforcement, the courts, nonprofit organizations, colleges and churches.

On Friday, Noozhawk sat down with three officials instrumental to the task force — District Attorney Joyce Dudley, Chief Deputy District Attorney Mag Nicola and Megan Rheinschild, Victim-Witness Assistance Program director — to talk about the community’s challenge.

According to Dudley, prostitution has long been a problem locally. In the late 1990s, she prosecuted several high-profile cases, including that of Patricia Cota, who ran a prostitution ring called “College Cuties.”

As law enforcement would raid the operations, immunity was given to the prostitutes and their clients in exchange for details. The information enabled authorities to shut down the operations and successfully prosecute the pimps.

“That was our goal,” Dudley said.

More recently, when the District Attorney’s Office started hearing about Asian massage parlors operating in the county, “we figured we would approach it the same way,” she said.

What they discovered was something much different. Prostitutes would no longer talk about the people for whom they were working, and Dudley and her team didn’t understand why.

Slowly, the picture became clearer.

One woman shared her story with a sheriff’s deputy, explaining that she had been living in Asia and was told she could come to the United States to work and send money back to her family.

She was working seven days a week in a local Chinese restaurant to pay back her travel expenses, when, Dudley said, the individual who had brought her to the United States said “you can pay us back sooner if you have sex with a few people.”

“They were initially labor trafficked and then they became prostitutes,” Dudley said.

Whenever the woman and others like her tried to get out of their predicament, they were told their families back home would be killed.

Dudley’s office also began to realize that it wasn’t just people from other countries who were being trafficked in Santa Barbara County. The victims were homegrown, too.

Trafficking can include sex trafficking, in which someone commits a commercial sex act by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person isn’t 18 years old.

The biggest problem the task force is seeing now is sex trafficking of domestic minors, meaning Americans under age 18, usually girls.

Girls from Oxnard, Los Angeles, Bakersfield and even Santa Barbara were involved in local sex trafficking, Dudley said.

Dudley approached Rheinschild, who already was aware of the problem, and suggested she create a task force, which quickly grew to dozens of members.

“It became pretty clear to me that there was already a sex trafficking problem in our community,” Rheinschild said. “You’re talking about a population of girls who have an abusive history, have been in foster care or group homes.”

They also can be associated with gangs or with people who are grooming them for prostitution and begin by forging a relationship with them based on their vulnerabilities.

“They say ‘I love you, I’m going to do this for you, come with me,’ and then it evolves from there,” Rheinschild explained.

Although human trafficking is the biggest category of organized crime in the world, the extent of its presence locally is alarming. Within her work, Rheinschild noted, she felt she had a good handle on what was going on in the community. When she began looking closer at the issue, she said, “I was blown away.”

Rheinschild learned that girls will arrive in Santa Barbara County with a pimp, who will post an ad on a website with a cell phone number.

“They’ll just take calls for a couple of days and roll in and roll out,” she said.

Santa Barbara is a desirable location because it’s a wealthy community, a travel destination, and has a relatively small law enforcement jurisdiction, she said.

Dudley said the people in charge of the girls are a mixture of locals and out-of-towners who move up and down California, often stopping where there are large events like conventions.

If it were up to Rheinschild, the word “prostitution” wouldn’t be part of the discussion. Although it initially might look as if the girls themselves made the decision to participate, she said, “10 times out of 10, it’s this really manipulative web of someone who’s controlling the money, movement, who they talk to.”

Girls can be in charge of recruiting new girls from within foster and group homes, and there’s a highly organized system of hierarchy. Rheinschild said one of her cases involved a pimp who was in charge of 60 different girls, all of whom are from the United States.

Many times, the victims will start to have Stockholm syndrome.

“They start to identify their pimp as someone they care about and want to protect,” she said. “They perceive the pimp as their boyfriend and protector.”

Many of the young women are addicted to drugs or come from abusive backgrounds, vulnerabilities that can make them a target.

Having access to money is hard to tear away from, and “they think I can’t go back to high school,” Rheinschild said.

The girls rarely get any of the money that they’re making; instead, they’re more likely to see it in the form of gifts, like new purses and clothes, she said.

Dudley said many of the girls get on law enforcement’s radar because they’re perpetrators. She said law enforcement may have picked them up for soliciting sex or drugs or stealing or selling things to pawn shops, and then, under questioning, officers may find out they’re being trafficked.

“We don’t prosecute children who are crime victims,” Dudley said, which presents a dilemma, because they’re often released from custody only to find themselves immediately being trafficked again.

“There are pimps waiting around the corner for them when they get out,” she said, adding that there are virtually no county services for such children.

On the task force’s wish list is to create a safe place for victims to turn their lives around.

“Otherwise, they will be trafficked again,” Dudley said. “They’ll be a victim, and many of them will end up dead. It’s black and white.”

Severe trauma and addiction also complicate things. Even if victims have a place to go, they may run from help, so adding mental health and medical treatment are also key.

Getting involved with law enforcement and teaching officers how to ask the right questions also is important, Nicola said. For example, an officer who picks up a girl for another crime could ask questions and find out that she’s being trafficked and connect her to a counselor at the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center.

“You have to have a victim-centered approach and be trauma informed,” Rheinschild said.

Neighboring counties are also looking to Santa Barbara County to see what’s working locally.

A high-functioning court just for girls within the juvenile court system, all front-line law enforcement trained to ask the right questions about trafficking, a program running out of juvenile hall stabilizing kids are “three big dreams we have,” Dudley said of the task force.

“It’s really getting the community to focus on the problem and the individual one at a time,” Nicola said. “That’s the goal.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper

— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.