In late July, police arrived at a SLO motel room to find a 15-year-old girl alone and scared, having just endured a week of sexual abuse for profit. Her captors and pimps were also teens and young adults aged 16 to 20. One of the most shocking details of the story was that in a single day in San Luis Obispo, the girl was forced to have sex with nine men. To put it another way, nine local men chose to pay for sex with a kidnapped minor: A child who couldn’t have consented even if she wanted to.
“It appears there’s business here,” said Tracy Schiro, assistant director of the SLO County Department of Social Services—the agency that is now responsible for the welfare of child sex trafficking victims.
According to Schiro, 10 cases in SLO last year involved minors who were trafficked for sex. Some of them were local kids, she said, but the majority were kids from outside SLO. The county only began tracking the number of local victims about a year ago, so it’s nearly impossible to know how large the problem is locally, or if it has grown.
Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham said that his office didn’t have robust statistics on the issue yet, but that it’s a goal.
Anecdotally, people involved with law enforcement and victim response say the problem is getting worse.
“It’s a growing issue in California,” Schiro said, “And it’s a growing issue in San Luis Obispo.”
Schiro is part of two anti-trafficking groups, one at the state level—HEAT (a blue ribbon panel for Human Exploitation and Trafficking)—and one at the local level—C SEC (a collaborative group for the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children). Both are multi-agency groups trying to organize a government response to trafficking—the groups include members of child protective services, law enforcement, victim response units, and anyone who could play a role in preventing and stopping such abuse. One of the group’s goals is to compile reliable statistics about the problem.
Similar to SLO County’s data, the state’s numbers concerning trafficking are probably not representative of the actual problem, either. According to a 2012 report by the state Attorney General’s office, between 2010 and 2012, 1,277 trafficking victims were identified in nine counties in California. A little more than half of those people were sex trafficking victims, the rest were laborers or domestic workers.
In 2014, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) received reports of more than 5,000 potential human trafficking victims through the NHTRC hotline. Close to a third of those calls were to report minor victims.
The local focus on trafficked minors and attempting to track the issue mimics a shift at the state level. And part of the state’s new trafficking focus is to move away from calling trafficked people “criminals” and instead calling them “victims.” In the past, trafficked people were frequently prosecuted along with their pimps and captors.
Belinda Benassi, a program manager for Child Welfare Services in SLO County and also a member of C SEC, said that getting people to look critically at the problem locally wasn’t easy.
“When we first started, the response from some people was that it can’t happen here,” Benassi said. “But it can happen here, and it can happen to any child.”
“We are a smaller county, but the fact that we’re centrally located between three top trafficking hubs [San Francisco, San Diego and Las Angeles], puts us in a unique position,” she added.
Last year C SEC started training everyone from police to social workers to recognize signs in at-risk children. Foster youth, according to Schiro, have a particularly high risk of being sexually exploited.
“[Traffickers] find a kid who wants a family,” Schiro said.
She believes that the trainings have been successful and have led to a higher number of children being identified locally. Signs to be aware of include a previous history of sexual abuse, gang affiliation, excessive travel or absence from school, a history of running away, having an older boyfriend, or a recent change in behavior or manner of dress.
For kids in foster homes, there may be no one to notice subtle changes, which Shiro said is why it’s important for social workers to have relationships with their clients, and to know the signs. She often works directly with local youth who have been trafficked (the vast majority of sexually exploited people in the country are women, according to Polaris, an anti-trafficking nonprofit). Shiro said that girls are often manipulated and coerced into prostitution by their boyfriends—people they love.
“The girls have shared with me that they looked up to them,” Shiro said. “They say things like, ‘he took care of me,’ or ‘he took me out to dinner.’ ... I talked with one survivor who, every time after he beat her and put her on the street, he would bring her chocolates, and take her out to dinner. She thought that was normal; she thought that was love.”
Both Benassi and Shiro said that it’s possible for a victim of trafficking to think they’re a willing participant, but with minors, the bottom line is they can’t consent to prostitution. This may be one reason that child sex trafficking gets so much more attention than adult trafficking. Even though kids under 18 represent less than one-third of the sex trafficking victims, it’s clear that there’s a victim in such cases.
According to Rebecca Turner, the executive director of the local anti-trafficking organization Central Coast Freedom Network (formerly known as the Mountainbrook Abolitionists), there are signs to look for that can indicate when a girl is being trafficked, especially online. In the recent SLO case, Johns—the customers—were found online, where the 15-year-old girl was advertised.
“Ads that are for an 18-year-old girl that don’t sound like they were written by an 18 year-old, probably weren’t,” Turner said.
Other red flags are ads that say things like “in town for one night” or “just got back into town.” Such phrases could indicate that a person is being moved through an area. As of press time, there were several ads on Craigslist that had similar phrases.
Schiro was skeptical that men who hire under-aged and trafficked women are simply unaware of those signs.
“Do they know?” Schiro asked rhetorically. “I don’t think they care.”
Kylie Mendonca is a staff writer for New Times. Contact her via email at email@example.com.