Human trafficking rally sheds light on sex slavery

Scores of people gathered Wednesday morning at Santa Rosa Courthouse Square with one message: human trafficking is real in Sonoma County and it must be stopped.

As part of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, the Sonoma County Human Trafficking Task Force held a rally to not only highlight its member agencies’ collaborative efforts to end trafficking, but also to bring awareness to the underreported issue.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who spoke at the event, said there has been a dramatic increase in the number of cases prosecuted. In 2011 there were 2, in 2012 there were 8 and in 2013 there have been upward of 15. “Bigger numbers means success, but there are still many cases we don’t see.”

“Human trafficking is human slavery – nothing short of it,” Ravitch said. “And the fact we are talking about human slavery in 2014 means we have failed … and we need to succeed.”

According to a report from the office of California’s attorney general, from mid-2010 to mid-2012, California’s nine regional human trafficking task forces identified 1,277 victims, initiated 2,552 investigations and arrested 1,798 individuals. Of those victims whose country of origin was identified, 72 percent are American.

Santa Rosa Police Department Det. Chris Mahurin, who has worked to infiltrate trafficking rings, arrest traffickers and rescue victims for the last seven years, said the average age of entry into sexual slavery is 12 to 14 and many of the victims he sees are from the United States, specifically from California, and are moved around the Bay Area by various pimps in trafficking rings. A majority of the cases Mahurin sees take place along the Highway 101 corridor in Santa Rosa, particularly on Santa Rosa Avenue.

Many of these women and girls come from abusive families or are trafficked by a family member or “boyfriend,” Mahurin explained. Children who run away also fall prey to traffickers, with 90 percent of runaways approached by human traffickers within 24 hours of being on the streets.

Traffickers have moved to online advertising and Internet trafficking through sites such as Craigslist, myredbook.com or backpage.com, to sell sex. Mahurin said this marketing shift makes it harder to track down traffickers and victims without an exact physical location. “We don’t know about a lot of the stuff that is going on online without a search warrant,” he explained, “but you can’t just get a search warrant to see what’s going on, so it’s a whole other layer of complexity.”

As part of the task force’s efforts to reduce the fear of reporting trafficking among victims, and to promote a cultural shift to remove the stigma associated with prostitution, Mahurin urged the audience to stop looking at these women as prostitutes or hookers, and rather to see them as women, children and most importantly, victims. “No woman at any age puts down a doll and says, ‘When I grow up, I want to have sex with as many men as I can and be forced to do things by a man who burns me with cigarettes and hits me.’”

Ravitch added, “Twenty-seven years ago when I started (my legal career) in Oakland, these women were prostitutes. She noted how protocol at that time was to prosecute the women, often with minor punishments, and put them back on the street. “Now, 27 years later, they are victims because we understand they are being trafficked – being forced to do this.”

Sonoma County’s human trafficking task force includes the district attorney’s office, several victim and youth advocacy groups, Santa Rosa and Petaluma police departments, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Homeland Security. Ravitch credits the task force’s collaborative efforts and the unique design of the diversion program for helping so many women and children. From the law enforcement officers who pursue traffickers and rescue victims, to the advocacy groups who shelter and rehabilitate these women, the joint effort enables victims to reclaim their lives and their self esteem, focusing on mental health, food, clothing, housing and financial stability.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who represents the third district that includes most of central Santa Rosa and a portion of Rohnert Park, honored victims with a moment of silence. “This is a crime against not just a young person’s body but against their very soul – and we have to help them reclaim their lives, their dignity,” she said.

Alli Brinkerhoff, a sexual assault victim advocate at Verity, a Santa Rosa-based victim advocacy and intervention group, took a moment to reflect on the other side of trafficking and look at the “brothers, fathers, teachers, men in the community who are purchasing sex.” Brinkerhoff said there must be a cultural shift to really put an end to trafficking. “There is a reason men in our society think a woman’s body is something that can be bought.”

She added she wants to see any person who purchases sex be put on a sex offender registry with letters sent to their family and friends, and have their names printed in the media. “We have to dissuade people that purchasing women or children is even a choice. ... We will cut into demand by going after these consumers.”

The final speaker, a woman who escaped sex slavery last year after authorities got involved in her case, offered a first-hand reminder that human trafficking does exist in the county and is far too common in the United States. She noted she had lived in 12 different states as a trafficking victim and was in constant fear of being punished by police for sex acts she was forced to do. She asked that the community take a chance to “help these girls because maybe she can be like me and help more girls and can turn herself around completely.”

Other speakers included Sonoma County Sheriff’s Det. Mechelle Buchignani, and Dana Bryant, executive director of Crossing the Jordan, a victim advocacy group.

Santa Rosa Avenue is not going to change overnight,” Mahurin said at the end of the event. “You will still see women walking down the street scantily clad in the middle of winter, but the difference is now you will know. We are no longer ignorant that human trafficking exists in Sonoma County, we are educated.”