Contributed by Jenna Harline
On September 21, 2017, a special "Human Trafficking Town Hall" was held at the LDS Church Alicia Building located in Laguna Niguel, California. The event was spearheaded by Mayor Pro Tem Elaine Gennawey of the City of Laguna Niguel and a local interfaith group led by Monsignor John Urell of St. Timothy's Catholic Church, Pastor Bill Snyder of Mission Lutheran Church, and President Rick Lamprecht, 1st Counselor in the Laguna Niguel Stake Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The town hall speakers included Kelly Manley, Orange County Deputy District Attorney for Human Trafficking & Exploitation, Sgt. Juan Reveles of the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, Tracey Priest, a Senior Social Worker, Kirsten Vital, Superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District, Jim Carson, Program Manager for the Orangewood Foundation, and Oree Freeman, a human trafficking survivor.
Human trafficking, the modern day term ascribed to human slavery, has emerged on the world stage as arguably the most despicable crime of the 21st century. Human slavery traces its origins as far back as Mesopotamia, one of the first recorded civilizations in history. Human trafficking encompasses both forced labor and sexual exploitation for commercial gain. As recent as February of 2017, Allen Cone of United Press International cited that, "In 2016, human trafficking in the United States rose 35.7 percent from the previous year, according to data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline." The Hotline launched in 2013 by the Polaris Project, a non-profit, non-governmental organization formed in 2002, was created to help the victims of the growing human trafficking epidemic in the US. By simply texting "BeFree" (233733), victims and captives can quickly and directly send a message that helps Polaris gather information and coordinate rescue with law enforcement. The hotline fielded a total of 26,727 calls last year.
According to the latest worldwide statistics provided by the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are an estimated 21 million victims trapped in some form of human slavery. While the worldwide statistics are staggering, in the US, California was the No.1 state for human trafficking with 1,323 cases followed by Texas with 670 and Florida with 550. Within Orange County, California, an affluent and conservative leaning county in Southern California, human trafficking is an increasingly booming and lucrative business. In the O.C., sex traffickers can expect to make double the income from forced sexual labor when compared to neighboring Los Angeles and San Diego Counties. Approximately 80 percent of the victims are transported to the area to meet the growing demand for services as opposed to Los Angeles and San Diego where victims are mostly local residents.
Orange County attendees were deeply troubled by the statistical information shared by the various panelists. In California, 43% of the sex trafficking victims are minors, 63% are minors when first prostituted, 48% are known to be sexually abused, 58% are runaways, and 71% are recruited by someone they know like a boyfriend, friend, or family member. Although the highest instances of human trafficking occur among girls touched by the foster care system, or who are living in underprivileged, broken, or troubled homes, increasingly girls from all social and economic demographics are being lured into this brutal world through social media, manipulation, false promises of love and security, modeling jobs, gifts, and offerings of safe harbor from unhappy, or abusive homes.
The most poignant moment of the evening occurred when Oree Freeman shared her story as an 11-year-old victim of sex trafficking. Audible gasps were heard in the audience as Oree recounted stories of the sex quotas that forced her to service as many as 15-20 sex patrons a night, and the heart breaking brand marking her as property and a sex slave at the tender age of 12. Sickened and saddened, many town hall attendants wondered what they could do to stop these horrifying, psychologically damaging crimes from happening in their community. Oree suggested that if you observe a girl that looks like they’re in trouble, they probably are in trouble, and counseled the audience to simply ask them if they are okay. Three simple words-- “Are you okay?” These words won’t end human trafficking in our communities, or even start to right the devastating effects of sex trafficking upon victims and families, but they might just start the conversation. They might convince one hopeless victim that someone cares. They might empower one victim with courage to reach out for help. Now imagine if hundreds and thousands of concerned citizens asked that simple question, every month, every day, every hour? The reality remains that victims of sex trafficking crimes are far from “okay,” but with community vigilance, with time, with extensive counseling, and with care, perhaps they might be “okay” one day in the future.
How Can We Help?
- Take notice and ask, "Are you okay?"
- Educate others
Upcoming donation drive
Visit these sites for more information and to learn how to get involved:
Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force
Orangewood Foundation (Jim Carson)
Mayor Pro Tem Elaine Gennawey egennawey(at)cityoflagunaniugel.org