Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force Update

ORANGE COUNTY  April 6, 2021  By Theresa Walker,   Page 1, contd Page 10

Human trafficking task force says dip in cases likely due to pandemic    A new report from the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force indicates that 357 people who had been forced into local sex work or other labor were helped by agencies here in 2019 and 2020, the most recent period surveyed.

While that figure seems to show a decline from the 415 victims helped in the task force’s previous two-year study, leaders say it would be misleading to think fewer people were victimized last year or that there was less assistance from local agencies. They point to disruption in data collection caused by the coronavirus, adding that some trafficking activity went underground during the pandemic.

Still, the report comes as the agency marks its 11th year of expanded collaboration and as task force leaders celebrate progress they’ve made over the past decade.

Representatives from the task force, which includes officials from the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, several police and county social service agencies, and Waymakers, a group that provides assistance to trafficking victims, plan to talk about the “2021 Human Trafficking

Victim Report” at a news conference today that will be livestreamed on the Anaheim Police Department’s Facebook and Instagram pages, starting at 1 p.m.

Anaheim police officials and Waymakers spoke in a phone interview on Monday in anticipation of the public release of the report. They emphasized that officials and community members in Orange County shouldn’t let their guard down.

“Just because there was a slight decrease in victims identified does not mean there were less victims in the county,” said Michelle Heater, program director of victim assistance services for Waymakers. “Our ability to reach them changed significantly.”

Anaheim Police Sgt. Juan Reveles, who supervises the task force’s law enforcement team, said the pimps and the traffickers haven’t gone away during the pandemic. Instead, he said, they’ve changed their methods, shifting operations away from the false front of massage parlors to motels and residential brothels.

Now, with the economy picking up and COVID-19 protocols easing, Reveles said the predators are “ahead of us, opening back up.”

Then, he added, “not that they (ever) really shut down.”

Pioneering tactics

If some trafficking numbers are slightly down, the demographics in the new report continue trends of previous years.

Most victims, the new report notes, are female, with adult women accounting for nearly 6 in 10 of all trafficking victims, and girls, some as young as 10, accounting for about 1 in 3. The report also noted that whether they were trafficked for the purpose of sex work, physical labor or some combination of the two, 85% of all victims were U.S. nationals.

Grown men were more likely to be trafficked for labor, accounting for about 5% of all victims, while adult and underage males who were trafficked for purposes of sex work accounted for about 1% of all victims.

As in past years, law enforcement agencies led the way in finding help for victims, accounting for 39% of the 294 referrals for assistance made in 2019 and 2020.

The Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force launched in 2004, growing from a smaller effort begun by Waymakers, the nonprofit organization Cambodian Family and the Westminster Police Department. In 2010, the task force was one of three recipients of a grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance and Office for Victims of Crime to develop so-called Enhanced Collaborative Models to Combat Human Trafficking.

The task force continues to operate on a renewable, four-year $1.5 million grant from the same sources.

As the local task force has expanded in size and scope, it has become a touchstone for others around California and the country. Local task force members are sought out for help in setting up similar task forces around the country, and to help train victim advocates, law enforcement and others who are trying to stem the flow of human trafficking in their communities.

Reveles said the task force’s success has helped change the way police and prosecutors engage with suspected victims and perpetrators.

A decade ago, most prosecutors and police would move on if someone they suspected of being a trafficking victim declined to cooperate or ask for assistance. Arrests typically focused on the prostitute, not the pimp or the customer.

In recent years, however, that script has flipped. Today, using a victim-centered approach, police, prosecutors and others work with victims instead of initially arresting them, understanding that sexual exploitation and forced labor traumatizes adults and children alike.

“We start with the premise they are victims unless they convince us otherwise,” Reveles said.

Under the old model, Reveles said, “pimps and traffickers would operate with impunity,” knowing that their victims would not cooperate with police. These days, he added, “they are getting arrested.”

And those arrests are leading to convictions. The Orange County District Attorney’s Office — which now has five prosecutors focused on human trafficking crimes, compared with zero in 2010 — has prosecuted 773 cases for felony charges of trafficking, pimping and pandering In the past nine years. Of the cases that went to trial, 95% ended in a guilty verdict, according to the report.

And, sometimes, victims do cooperate.

Law enforcement will call on the expertise of the advocates at Waymakers and other task force members to work with trafficking victims and learn their history. That process continues even when the subject leaves Orange County, with advocates offering updates on criminal proceedings and helping victims connect to resources in their new homes.

Despite the inability to meet face-to-face with victims during the early stages of the pandemic, advocates — and the community of volunteers who help with outreach — found other ways to continue their work. That included phone calls and texts, curbside food drop offs and even mentoring sessions via Zoom.

Still, Heater said, the remote work has its limits. Some victims assisted by Waymakers, she said, didn’t continue with outreach and “we lost contact with them.”

But task force members believe that’s a short-term setback; working with human trafficking victims, they say, is a long-term process.

“It can be weeks, months, sometimes years, that they will return and say, ‘I need out. I need help,’” Heater said.

A client at an Anaheim brothel was caught with the woman at left during a police raid in 2009. Though the woman worked there, she was considered a victim by police and the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force.