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LA County, cities use January to spread awareness about human trafficking

President Barack Obama recently proclaimed January as "National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month," and local organizations, leaders and advocates have launched various events, conferences and marches in an effort to spread awareness about human trafficking, a crime that the Polaris Project defines as "a form of modern-day slavery."

According to sex trafficking specialist Melissa Grace Hoon, there are nearly 1.6 million runaway youths in the U.S., many of whom are at risk for sexual exploitation.  She says a large majority of them–nearly 95 percent of trafficking victims–have been sexually abused or molested from a young age. 

This sexual abuse becomes normalized to the victim and makes them vulnerable, explained Hoon.

“Trafficking is the most invisible yet visible crime out there. Sex trafficking and labor trafficking are happening right before our eyes, and yet, to the untrained eyes, we are unable to see that it’s going on,” Hoon said.

Trafficking can take many different forms, but the most recognized are labor, domestic servitude and sex trafficking:

  • Labor can refer to those who are forced to work against their will in fields, factories and other places where labor trafficking can be overlooked. 
  • Sex trafficking is the exploitation of victims through forced sexual acts.
  • Domestic servitude often coincides with labor trafficking. It can involve house servants, nannies or maids who are forced to work against their will, with little to no pay.

Local organizations call for action

Several Los Angeles and Orange county-based organizations and local leaders have stepped up to help spread awareness about human trafficking.

  • Cities such as Long Beach have signed a proclamation aimed at ending modern slavery.
  • Other Orange County nonprofit organizations such as the International Princess Project have launched sewing centers to help create new job opportunities for trafficking survivors in India.
  • The Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force has aided in the prevention and cracking down on human trafficking through the help of lead agencies like the FBI and the Salvation Army, among others. Most recently, it co-organized various art exhibitions like FREE THEM, to highlight the stories of survivors through art. 
  • Irvine-based iSanctuary has developed the Professional Opportunities for Survivors of Trafficking Program to help its survivors on the road to recovery, while helping them potentially attain a full-time job. 

Free Them from OCHTTF on Vimeo.

In 2012, Proposition 35 (Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act) was passed in California to address human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Since its implementation, the law requires registered sex offenders to disclose their Internet activity. The law also imposes stricter fines and increased prison sentences for convicted human traffickers. 

Despite the fact that 39 states have passed laws to address human trafficking this year, instances of modern slavery continue to emerge in L.A. and Orange counties and elsewhere.

Approximately 100,000 minors are trafficked for sex in the U.S. annually, and about 3,000 of those are in the Los Angeles area and the city of Long Beach, according to the city of Long Beach. 

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center reported that 3,083 hotline calls were made during the year from California – making it the state with one of the highest numbers of crisis calls to the NHTRC. 

One Border from iEmpathize on Vimeo.

On Jan. 21, Long Beach councilman Patrick O'Donnell signed a proclamation adding the city of to the list of cities in the U.S. officially recognizing Human Trafficking Awareness month.

"The recent proclamation is an effort by the Long Beach community to educate and activate individuals to stop human trafficking nationally, locally and globally," O'Donnell told KPCC.

Long Beach's proclamation comes in the midst of the sentencing of a 40-year-old Long Beach resident in the sex trafficking of a teenager.

Last year, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ office, along with other city government officials and Long Beach Mayor Aja Brown, organized a protest along Long Beach Boulevard, a street that has become notorious as a corridor frequently used by sex traffickers.

U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking 

Sr. Kathleen Bryant from the recently formed U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking group told KPCC that domestic trafficking is a huge problem in Southern California. Her group has lobbied for legislation revolving around child sex trafficking. 

Bryant’s group was one of many organizations present at the march last year. She recalls how many protesters chanted, “Our children are not for sale." 

“Some women who had been sold on that boulevard shared their stories at the microphone beforehand,” Bryant said.

In April 2013, her group was invited to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the White House to brainstorm ways in which people can eradicate modern-day slavery.

Last September, the group returned to lobby for legislation on sex trafficking. The group met with senators and representatives, including members from Rep. Karen Bass’ office, to speak about pending federal legislation.

The group has also lobbied for HR 2283 and, most recently, is working to support SB 477, a bill drafted by Steinberg that prevents human trafficking by foreign labor recruiters and requires the contractors to register with the labor commissioner.  

Bryant continues to shed light on human trafficking through a healing-through-the-arts event at Mount St. Mary's Symposium Feb. 8. 

International Princess Project and CAST

Rebuilding the torn lives of survivors often comes in the form of providing support and a chance to become financially independent.  

Costa Mesa-based International Princess Project has launched ongoing initiatives to empower and provide job opportunities for human trafficking survivors in India.

International Princess Project / Gala from Brandon Setter on Vimeo.

Founder Shannon Keith says she launched her organization after a trip to India in 2005. During that same year, her husband and family had dedicated a fresh water well in a needy community in India, which also happened to be located in a red light district in a village in Andhra Pradesh.

In India, the traditional sari symbolizes the beauty and elegance of a woman. But in a country riddled with gang rapes and a growing sex trade, Keith noticed how it served as a stark contrast.

In order to give the women a chance at becoming financially independent, The International Princess Project has launched a line of lounge wear — Punjammies — created by the hands of women who have survived human trafficking. 

According to Keith, four sewing centers are located in cities like Bombay and Hyderbad. Each woman who works at the sewing centers is given a fair trade and the chance to contribute to the lounge wear collection, which is then exported and purchased by people in the U.S.

In Los Angeles, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST), provides a free 24-hour hotline to assist callers with referrals and other services, including legal, social and survivor leadership training programs. 

The organization was established in 1998 after reports of a case involving 72 Thai garment workers who were kept in slavery and debt bondage for nearly eight years.