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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on January 3rd, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 44 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 44

Santa Barbara County law enforcement officials say their methods for battling sex and human trafficking are improving

By SPENCER COLE

View a video of Megan Rheinschild's TedX talk.

Santa Barbara County law enforcement, spearheaded by the District Attorney’s (DA) and Sheriff’s offices, ramped up their activity this past year to limit human trafficking in their jurisdictions, in part thanks to a $1 million-plus grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Human trafficking is the 21st century equivalent to slavery and includes crimes that for too long have been in the shadows,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said in an August 2016 statement announcing the increase in funding.

Since receiving the $1.34 million grant at the end of 2016, authorities identified 50 sex workers within the county, with around 15 of those being minors, according to Yleana Velasco, a victim witness advocate with the DA’s Office. She said the DA’s Office was currently prosecuting a dozen individuals for human trafficking related crimes, ranging from prostitution to outright slavery. All the arrests came from proactive investigations made possible by the grant, she added.


INVISIBLE VICTIMS
Megan Riker-Rheinschild, victim assistance director for the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, gave a TEDx Talk on human trafficking in Santa Barbara in November 2017. Sex- and human-trafficking victims are sometimes hard to identify and locate because of the nature of the work they are forced to perform, she explained during the talk.
IMAGE COURTESY OF YOUTUBE

Lt. Brian Olmstead heads the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office’s special investigations bureau, which includes sex- and human-trafficking related crimes. He told the Sun that one of the most important resources to combat criminals besides funding was citizens speaking out as they would in any situation involving terrorism.

Human trafficking and sex related crimes became a major priority for law enforcement in Santa Barbara County following a needs assessment report released by the DA’s Human Trafficking Task Force. The report cited a Federal Bureau of Investigation victim specialist for Los Angeles who called the Central Coast a hub for sex trafficking.

According to the 2012 California Attorney General’s State of Human Trafficking in California Report, between January 2008 and June 2010, 42 federally funded United States Human Trafficking Task Forces investigated 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking. That report found that eight out of 10 incidents were classified as sex trafficking cases, with 83 percent of survivors identified as U.S. citizens. More than 1,000 of the investigations included allegations of child sex trafficking.

Both the attorney general’s report and Santa Barbara County’s DA identified California as one of the nation’s top four destination states for human trafficking.

“We really want the public to understand that we do have this problem in the county and that the more information we can get from the community when they see things taking place or see suspicious activity, the better it is for us,” Olmstead said.

Taking the battle public 

One method of reaching out and educating the public for law enforcement has been through news releases and online educational videos.

On Dec. 20, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley released a statement praising the office’s victim assistance director, Megan Riker-Rheinschild, for her recent TEDx Talk presentation on human trafficking.

“[Riker-Rheinschild] has become a state and national leader in supporting and advocating for crime victims,” Dudley said. “She has steadfastly advocated for not just human trafficking victims, but all crime victims throughout her 20-plus years of service in our District Attorney’s Office.”

In November 2017, Riker-Rheinschild delivered the talk in front of a packed auditorium in Santa Barbara, where she painted a picture of the trials human trafficking victims are forced to face. The video is available for free on YouTube.

Riker-Rheinschild described a sex trafficking victim preparing to appear in Santa Barbara Superior Court to testify against her abuser and pimp and the events that led up to that day. Law enforcement discovered the victim, whom Riker-Rheinschild referred to as “Jane Doe,” being advertised online for “anyone willing to purchase sex.”

The hotel where law enforcement found Doe was located between two upper-middle-class neighborhoods in Santa Barbara.

Authorities made contact with the victim, who informed them that her pimp was staying on the second floor of the hotel. He was quickly arrested and human trafficking charges were levied against him.

Riker-Rheinschild said that back in the courtroom, the DA’s lead prosecutor pressed Doe to explain “the life” of a trafficking victim. And she did—answering every question, sometimes unable to mask her irritation.

“You all should really know this shit,” Doe said.

It was in that moment that Riker-Rheinschild and the DA’s Office knew they had a real problem, because they should know, she explained in the talk.

“Not only the terms and words [associated with human trafficking], but the faces of the people and the girls that were the victims of sex trafficking in our own community,” she explained. “I didn’t know this was happening in our own backyard, on a main street, between two upper-middle-class neighborhoods, next to a coffee shop that I frequented.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, some 300,000 kids nationwide are sex trafficked on any given day. That’s the population equivalent to the city of Pittsburgh.

Locally, estimating the number of human trafficking victims within the county is a daunting task, according to Olmstead, who explained that some cases involved people working in restaurants or on farms for bosses who may hold their visas and all other forms of documentation. He said it was also difficult to identify when a woman or man was a sex worker because of trafficking—for instance they could be what he called “independent contractors” and not have a pimp.

“We know [the number of people trafficked] is a lot because there’s just a huge likelihood because of the internet and social media,” Olmstead explained, citing anecdotal evidence from investigators who witness ads offering sex regularly. “The problem is countywide: We’ve done stings all across it and get the same response—we’ll get hundreds of people responding to our ads [that serve as bait for traffickers and illicit sex seekers].”

The most recent string of trafficking-related apprehensions came in October 2017, when law enforcement reported that 15 men ranging from ages 22 to 60 were arrested for prostitution-related crimes following a two-day sting operation. The operated involved an online advertisement with a woman offering to “engage in sexual acts in exchange for money,” Santa Barbara Sheriff Office Public Information Officer Kelly Hoover said at the time.

Some people came from as far north as San Luis Obispo County to engage in illegal sex acts in Santa Barbara County, Olmstead said.

Identifying solutions

Riker-Rheinschild reiterated several times during her TEDx presentation that no 12-year-old girl would willingly enter into prostitution and that the youth who were sucked into the seedy underworld of human trafficking were manipulated victims of circumstance. Moreover, many of the girls come from families with incarcerated parents or are shuffled endlessly through group and foster homes.

Riker-Rheinschild also pointed out that the life expectancy for a sex worker after entering that world was roughly a decade.

“There’s a likelihood a girl like Jane Doe would be dead by age 20,” she added.

Olmstead noted that victims came from all walks of life: “not just single parent, or drug abuse home. They can come from good families, not just ones in crisis.”

Riker-Rheinschild said there were many ways for the average citizen to get involved to help combat the issue: becoming a mentor for at-risk youth through Big Brothers Big Sisters programs, or volunteering to be a court appointed special advocate for kids in the foster care system. The easiest thing to do, she noted, was to just be prepared to listen to a child when they say something is wrong or if they are acting unusually.

“Just listening can be so empowering at that age,” she said. “I don’t stand here with all the answers, but I believe firmly in the humanity of these girls, our girls. That humanity is the casualty of human trafficking.” 

Staff Writer Spencer Cole can be reached at scole@santamariasun.com.

VIA TEDx TALKS ON YOUTUBE.COM




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