Confronting Child Sex Trafficking on the Central Coast

August 23, 2016
 Photo: Ken Pfeiffer Photography


A source from the FBI’s Los Angeles Division alerted the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office that the Central Coast had become a hub for commercial sexual exploitation of minors — a crime that had gone relatively undetected by local authorities. Photo: Ken Pfeiffer Photography

By Leah Bartos

Five years ago, when Lisa Conn became a mental health provider for juvenile justice in Santa Barbara County, she noticed a disturbing trend: A large number of the incarcerated girls were displaying symptoms of complex trauma and, in particular, sex trauma.

“When I would speak to them, those who were willing to talk about it, they would admit to being raped, but never would talk much more about the extent of what was happening to them,” Conn said.

She suspected something bigger was going on.

“Their symptoms were beyond what we would typically see with sexual assault,” she said. Conn noticed the young women had an intense loyalty to the men she suspected were their abusers; they seemed almost brainwashed. “Not all of them would even say they were being raped, but they had the telltale signs of trauma.”

Finally, a high-profile criminal case provided some clues. In 2013, with a tip from the FBI, Santa Barbara police apprehended a suspected sex trafficker as he tried to climb out a second-story hotel window. The officers also found a 16-year-old girl in the room. The case would become the county’s first-ever prosecution of human trafficking; the defendant, Brannon Pitcher, was convicted in a 2015 jury trial and sentenced to 38 years in prison.

But for Conn, and others in the county, it quickly became clear this wasn’t an isolated incident; the case provided important insights into what was going on with the young female inmates in the county’s juvenile hall. The Central Coast, it appeared, had become a haven for the illicit trade of sex trafficking. As punishments for suspected child sex traffickers have been ramping up — seven adults have been tried for human trafficking-related charges, resulting in five convictions (including Pitcher); two more cases are pending trial — the county is also working to provide services for the victims of the trade.

“That was our eye-opener. She had such similar traits to the other girls,” Conn said of the victim in the Pitcher case. “That’s when everything shifted”

The county’s Juvenile Justice Mental Health Services team began documenting and screening for sex trafficking — also known as commercial sexual exploitation of children, or CSEC.

“Once we started to look and ask the right questions, we recognized that many, many girls in the juvenile justice system are vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation, and are currently being victimized,” Conn said. “At that time we thought were going to find a few cases; maybe a handful in the county. What we found was way more than that.”

As of June 2016, the new screening efforts have revealed that roughly 25 percent of the girls incarcerated in juvenile hall had been victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Since 2014, Conn and her team have identified 49 confirmed CSEC victims involved with the juvenile justice system, and an additional 32 who they suspected were also victims. Of the total, 75 were girls and six were boys. (During that same time period, there were 296 unique female inmates incarcerated in juvenile hall.)

While some of the youth were victims of sexual exploitation before being incarcerated, others were recruited for trafficking by their peers while incarcerated in the detention facility, Conn said. As she explained, similar to gang dynamics, the recruitment typically happens under the direction of the traffickers, even while the girls are behind bars.

But Conn says that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Her numbers are only representative of the youths in juvenile hall; it is only a small sampling, she says, of the countywide problem.

“We probably missed so many kids over the years, because this has been going on since the dawn of time,” she said. “Nobody wants to believes it, but it is happening here.”

* * *

Meanwhile, other officials in Santa Barbara County were becoming increasingly aware that they had a considerable problem with human trafficking.

A source from the FBI’s Los Angeles Division alerted the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office that the Central Coast had become a hub for commercial sexual exploitation of minors — a crime that had gone relatively undetected by local authorities.

Geography is partly responsible. Situated along the Highway 101-corridor, the region is strategically located between major metropolitan areas to the north and south. And with the area’s relative wealth and steady influx of tourists, it also appeared to have a heightened demand, investigators said.

District Attorney Joyce Dudley moved to fill the law enforcement void by establishing a human trafficking task force in 2013, and commissioned a report to assess the scope of the problem and develop strategies for intervention.

Additionally, a consortium of county agencies — including the District Attorney, Child Welfare Services, Juvenile Court, Probation, Public Health and others — are convening to develop an inter-agency protocol for handling CSEC cases.

Human trafficking — defined as controlling a person to provide services or labor through force, fraud or coercion — has become a $150 billion-a-year global industry, according to the International Labour Organization. Commercial sexual exploitation accounted for about two-thirds of the total.

But increasingly, investigators are recognizing that human trafficking — and especially child sex trafficking — is a homegrown problem. According to a 2012 Attorney General report, 72 percent of victims identified in California were U.S. citizens. In Santa Barbara, nearly all the victims identified in the DA’s report were residents of the county.

An important first step has been simply educating county agencies, as well as the community at large, said Mark Contois, a division chief for Child Welfare Services.

Contois said a common misconception is that human trafficking is something that happens in far-flung countries, and that the victims are not Americans.

“There’s a sense of unawareness, almost an astonishment for some people, to really see that this is actually going on in our community,” he said.

Bringing that education to the local schools, Contois said, is also imperative; they’re seeing children as young as 10 being targeted by traffickers.

Many of the CSEC survivors in the local sampling had experienced early childhood trauma prior to being trafficked. A history of child abuse and neglect was common; many had also been placed in foster care.

Typically, traffickers will begin their relationships by meeting their victims’ basic needs — they’ll provide food, shelter, clothing and, often times, a sense of love and affection.

In many ways, the dynamics of child sex trafficking are like those that play out in domestic violence. Often, survivors of commercial sexual exploitation display an intense loyalty to their traffickers, who many consider their boyfriends.

As part of that dynamic, victims rarely see themselves as such, said Rita McGaw, the Victim Witness Program Supervisor for the Santa Barbara County District Attorney. The complexity of trafficking dynamics, she said, necessitates that all the county agencies that may come into contact with CSEC cases be “trauma-informed.”

“They may not present like a ‘normal’ victim would. They may be angry, they may have victim-bonds to their trafficker and want him to love them and be proud of them. It’s really complicated,” McGaw said. “Knowing that she might not present as a victim doesn’t mean she’s not a victim.”

* * *

Armed with that knowledge, some local law enforcement agencies are taking a different approach to suspected cases of child sexual exploitation, including the police force in Santa Maria, the county’s most populous city.

Sergeant Paul Flores of the department’s Detective Bureau said that a culture shift within law enforcement was necessary; even changing the way officers refer to CSEC cases has had an effect.

“Calling it human trafficking or CSEC is new terminology for something that’s been here for a long time,” Flores said. “I don’t think that trafficking of minors has increased so much; we’re just now more aware of it and putting more attention and resources to it.”

The training, Flores said, is similar to how officers approach cases of sexual assault.

“We’re not necessarily treating it like a prostitute-pimp situation; we’re treating the children like victims…rather than they’re criminal prostitutes and we’re going to take them to jail,” Flores said.

Another change has been the implementation of the county’s CSEC court. Similar in approach to drug courts, the program offers an alternative form of justice and works on a case-by-case basis to design a treatment plan for CSEC survivors.

Generally, the CSEC victims identified at juvenile hall had been arrested for crimes other than prostitution — typically, a status offence like truancy or running away, or a drug-related charge. While serving time in juvenile hall is still a possible consequence for the CSEC survivors facing criminal charges, it is not the default solution for cases that previously would have been adjudicated that way.

Moving away from the propensity to incarcerate, Conn said, will not only contribute to better outcomes for the survivors, it may even prevent the problem from spreading. Incarceration, she has observed, is also a risk factor for being trafficked.

“Putting kids that have been exposed to trauma in institutional settings like that can really increase their risk and vulnerability to being exploited, whether by gangs or trafficking or both,” Conn said.

“Unless they’re a danger to society, we shouldn’t be locking up kids that are acting out because they’re just full of trauma. And that’s what we do. We don’t know what to do with them so we put them in prison and lock them up.”

She added, “It’s all this kind of punitive approach, but they don’t get better that way.”

To that end, Conn helped establish the Resiliency Interventions for Sexual Exploitation (RISE) project to serve the behavioral health needs of CSEC survivors and their families. The program, in partnership with the county’s Department of Behavioral Wellness, received a three-year “innovations” grant, funded by the state’s Mental Health Services Act. The pilot program launched last fall, and will be examined by the state as potential model for handling CSEC in all California counties.

One of the biggest barriers in this area, Conn says, is the societal persistence of victim-blaming that happens in these cases. “That stigma keeps the girls hidden,” she said.

At RISE, Conn says the providers take a non-judgmental approach; in fact, she doesn’t even need the girls to confess to be able to provide services.

“Some of them will never say it out loud…It’s such a shaming thing for them; it’s the lowest of the low. How do you put a female down? You call her a whore.”

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