A county multi-disciplinary task force is putting the lie to the notion that, “It can’t happen here.” Law enforcement, social services, mental health and public health staff have joined in a campaign to reduce and prevent human trafficking of local youth for the purpose of commercial sex exploitation. Although many of the 20 victims identified in the past three years have been foster children or connected to juvenile justice systems, any young people may be vulnerable.
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Mark Contois, assistant director of the county’s Health and Human Services Agency, delivered a chilling report to the El Droado County Board of Supervisors at its April 22 meeting. The report combined a slide presentation that included an El Dorado Hills mother whose teenage daughter went missing on her way to the grocery story with in-person testimony of a “survivor” of sexual captivity, Contois said the county has become recognized in the state for its Foster Youth and Human Trafficking (FYHT) program. A subset of Children’s Protective Services, the task force has significantly expanded the fairly limited role of CPS by partnering with many other agencies whose goals overlap in the areas of protecting children.
Applying the acronym CSEC to the victims (Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children), Contois suggested that human trafficking of children for sexual exploitation has become a crime of “epidemic proportions” throughout the state, the nation and the world.
Annually, it is a $32 billion global business that involves as many as 200,000 to 300,000 children either directly or at risk in the United States, the task force discovered. Contois said there are 96,809 foster children in California alone and 428 in El Dorado County. According to a report by the California Child Welfare Council, “anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent of the victims of commercial sexual exploitation, including child sex trafficking, are, or were formerly, involved with child welfare.” In addition, a survey by the Los Angeles Probation Department showed that nearly 60 percent “of the 174 juveniles arrested on prostitution-related charges in the county were in the foster care system and victims were often recruited by sex traffickers and pimps from group homes.”
The state as a whole “has emerged as a magnet for commercial sexual exploitation of children,” and Contois added that because of its location relative to the state’s major highway system, Sacramento has become a “hub” of the activity.
“We must change the conversation on how we view and respond to victims if we are going to make a shift in combating this epidemic and it starts with us, today,” Contois said. “Why is it easy for us to understand that a 13-year-old, who is molested by their caretaker or loved one is a victim of child abuse, yet that same 13-year-old who is out on the corner or on the Internet being exploited for sale is viewed as a criminal? Adult and environmental socialization and societal influence has the same impact on these two very similar examples and, yet society sees them differently. I challenge us all today to make that shift in our thinking that regardless, CSEC youths are victims and we treat them as such.”
A major contributor to the problem is technology. Three out of every four victims were “sold” on the Internet through social media sites, bulletin boards, adult classifieds, escort webs, file sharing and the “deep Web,” the documents note. Text, e-mail, Twitter, Snapchat and KIK were listed as common vehicles for sexual exploitation of children. Experts from many of the top technology and media companies have been recruited to assist the efforts of groups such as the FYHT task force, Contois said.
Combining forces from multiple public agencies that deal with children or health issues has always been difficult because of their universal requirements to maintain patient or client confidentiality. In its simplest manifestation, agencies generally don’t talk to other agencies without court orders or other legalities related to confidentiality. But to be effective in delivering services, “it works best when agencies can communicate (with each other),” deputy county counsel Paula Frantz told the board. “The Legislature has set up limited waivers (that allow multi-disciplinary teams) to do it.” To protect that ability, Frantz said, “We have to be careful to build on our successes and those of others … MDT teams are springing up across the state.”
Lt. Kim Nida of the Placerville Police Department is a member of the task force, and she brought the issue right down to street level. Speaking about the “kids hanging out,” she said, “We knew their names but we didn’t know their stories.” In effect, she explained that law enforcement is recognizing that children behaving in certain ways may well be victims of trauma. In reality, they may not just be hanging out on the corner but rather may be compelled by criminal elements who control them. Describing hers and law enforcement’s common response to “just another CPS warrant,” Nida said now they are more aware of the broader issues and “I can contact law enforcement in other areas.” The point being that law enforcement in Fresno or anywhere is more likely to respond to law enforcement in Placerville perhaps than to an out-of-county social worker, for example.
Supervisor Ron Briggs has represented the board for a number of years on issues relating to Elder Protection and other human services programs. He recommended the FYHT presentation on Tuesday’s agenda.
“Sometimes at the Board of Supervisors, we actually get to do things that rise above the petty (issue of) whether there is a house here or a house there” — a reference to the fact that much of the board’s work concerns land-use issues. Acknowledging a need for money for education and training of workers in the field, he said old assumptions may need to shift.
“In the old times we called them the Belltower Girls, but maybe it wasn’t true that they were there voluntarily,” Briggs said. “There must be zero complacency on our part.” (The Belltower on Main Street in Placerville has historically been a place where young people congregate and may be considered a focal point in the life of a small town.) Because El Dorado County does “not have enough beds,” many foster children are sent to placements outside the county, which reduces the degree of control local child welfare services has over them and may contribute to “kids recruiting other kids in foster care out of county.” Briggs spoke to that dilemma, saying, “We need to start getting control of where these kids are going to go, look at where kids are being placed at and being trafficked from.” Comparing the CSEC “epidemic” to others, Briggs suggested that, “If we had 15 cases of ebola or Asian flue, it would be headlines … why not for our kids? We want to get those kids who can be helped now.”
Board Chairwoman Norma Santiago called out the “elephant in the room” when she asked who is targeting these youth. “What’s the demand, where is it coming from? Is there a profile of who is seeking young people for sex?” she asked. Contois replied that while he does not yet have that information for El Dorado County, “other counties do have much of it.”
He went on to make it clear to the board that “our presentation today is not seeking money” but rather to introduce the need for “thoughtful, purposeful decisions and making us aware as a county.” And although the board did not make a specific commitment nor offer money to further the efforts of the task force, supervisors indicated their appreciation of what Contois called the “sweat equity” of his department in general and of the task force in particular.