Editor’s Note: Human sex trafficking has become a major focus of officials and law enforcement in Southern California. This is the last of a three-part series examining the issue in Long Beach. Go to www.gazettes.com for previous stories.

On a hot summer morning the Thursday before the Fourth of July, a group of more than 60 people convened in the basement of First Lutheran Church. Holiday weekend or not, this group of diverse community members was ready to discuss the topic at hand.

The Long Beach Human Trafficking Task Force (LBHTTF) formed in January 2012. The group meets from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month at First Lutheran Church, 905 Atlantic Ave. At its beginning, groups like Junior League of Long Beach and Kingdom Causes came together to combat human sex trafficking.

“We found quickly that there were plenty of people in the community doing great work,” Virginia Zart, LBHTTF co-founder, said. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we all come together and see who is doing what?’”

Today, the task force includes representatives from City Council offices, health groups, mental health groups, shelters, church groups, law enforcement agencies, attorney’s offices and trauma centers.

“We were floored that many people were working on the issue,” Zart said. “The best way to get to our goal was doing it collaboratively.”

Last Thursday’s meeting included some introductory words from several members, before the group split into subcommittees that focus on prevention, prosecution, protection and an introduction to the topic for new visitors. One group debated where the issue was heading from the perspective of the law; another was fervently working toward a Long Beach Unified School District awareness event slated for next January; and yet another meeting upstairs in the church area discussed available shelter options. The enthusiasm in the building resonated throughout.

Getting Some Attention

Community engagement goes a long way, but officials from many agencies admitted that institutionally there needs to be more strides taken.

“I, like so many people, thought it was only in Third World countries and not here in our own backyard,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe said. “It’s probably one of the most horrific issues I’ve ever dealt with in my political career.”

Knabe said he was made aware of the issue in detail about three years ago, and since then he has been one of the most vocal elected officials in the country about it — including testifying before a congressional committee. Locally, he added, a key so far has been in the courtroom.

“(Human trafficking victims) would come into the courtroom, the judge would slap the wrist and let them go,” he said. “The scumbag pimp is just waiting out there in the parking lot.”

Working with two probation officers, Knabe helped secure $1 million in federal grant money, which was used to start the revolutionary STAR Court.

“We wanted to put (survivors) in a situation with all these services available to them,” Knabe said.

The STAR Court has judges who don’t rotate out of it, so they maintain intimate knowledge and training on the topic. STAR Court is for children 17 and younger as a diversion program specifically for child sex trafficking situations.

The court includes representation from the Los Angeles County Public Defender, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Department of Public Health — along with mental health and housing organizations. Each new victim has a former human sex trafficking survivor there to help them along the way.

“We have all the wrap-around services right there,” Knabe said.

Knabe’s office also has worked with Metrolink and billboard companies to put anti-trafficking campaigns front and center around the county. He has lobbied for harsher laws that penalize traffickers and the Johns who pay for sex with the girls.

“As we learn more in training and from survivors, that helps with the laws,” he said. “You can’t put this in the same category as three strikes or the same as armed robbery or burglary — it’s totally different. This is a human life that is just being destroyed.”

Prostitution is a misdemeanor. If the victims are 18 or older, the cases come to City Prosecutor Doug Haubert’s office, where training in the new ways of looking at prostitution cases has become even more important.

The laws get much trickier when involving someone 18 or older, because those people are considered adults in the eyes of the law.

“We screen cases and try to identify some of the indicators that may suggest there is human trafficking involved,” Haubert said, adding that they have a victim advocate who follows up on certain cases.

“We don’t have any tools and laws to help us identify these cases,” Haubert said. “It’ s up to our office to keep an eye out when their status is not juvenile, it’s really on us.”

The trick is training and recognition, officials said, because there are still plenty of victims who started young and never got out before turning 18.

Here To Help

LA CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking) operates as the largest direct service provider for human trafficking victims (sex and work). Organized 15 years ago, the nonprofit’s mission is to directly work with survivors and work for systematic change against human trafficking.

Jennifer (name changed for safety reasons) manages the CAST 24-hour hotline as an emergency response coordinator. The hotline receives referrals, often from proactive law enforcement agencies like the Long Beach Police Department.

From there, victims meet with Jennifer and someone from CAST’s legal team to talk about the services provided (everything from grocery shopping, legal aid, housing placement and clinic referrals).

“The goal of the program is to give the skills needed to be self sufficient,” Jennifer said. “We don’t try and put a lot of pressure on them to accept services. We want to do everything on their own timing.”

Other early adopter nonprofits that have been on the forefront of the issue, officials said, include The Mary Magdalene Project and Saving Innocence.

More and more survivors are coming out in public to tell their stories, often starting their own groups and nonprofits to help in the fight.

D’Lita Miller, founder of Families Against Sex Trafficking, is one such case. She survived her own roots in prostitution and then dealt with a daughter getting entangled in the human sex trafficking trade.

“There wasn’t really a lot of support for the family, is what we found,” she said of the reason for founding her own nonprofit. “From the experiences we went through, I saw the advocacy families specifically needed.”

Representing survivor-story diversity is key, too, said Rachel Thomas, founder of Sowers Education Group.

Thomas didn’t become entrapped in human sex trafficking until she was 20, when a supposed modeling talent agent tricked her. She said it was important to her that this story was represented, and she still shares commonalities with all the young women she meets.

Sowers have made presentations to more than 5,000 students at Poly High School and Thomas has developed an intervention curriculum being taught to other survivors.

“We’re telling people signs to look out for, what human trafficking is and how to be safe,” Thomas said. “I think the most successful organizations and initiatives are the ones that are survivor-informed.”

Getting Better

Human sex trafficking, particularly regarding children, is a topic catching on at many different levels.

“The approach is a victim center approach now, as we recognize them as victims that are caught up in the vicious cycle of abuse — something that is not easy to get out of,” said Victor Rodriguez, assistant head deputy of sex crimes at the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. “There even needs to be the understanding that they might not initially want the services, or it could take several attempts to recognize they are victims and that they need to get away from traffickers.”

LBPD Vice Lt. Dan Pratt said it is good to see more places opening up to house survivors, along with more political will and money being invested into combatting human sex trafficking.

“We have to do more training and the survivors are a key element to all of this,” Knabe said. “I think this has to really be elevated as a national issue.”

Miller said she was optimistic about the future, even if there was still a lot of work to do.

“We have a ways to go, but the fact that we are looking at this differently and law enforcement and school districts are being trained now — it’s good to see that the language is being changed,” she said.

Victims looking for immediate services are encouraged to call 9-1-1 or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, which will connect them to resources, including local groups. A roundup of many of the Southern California groups can be found at www.socalhumantraffickingevents.info. Email the Long Beach task force at LBHTTF@gmail.com.

Jonathan Van Dyke can be reached at jvandyke@gazettes.com.

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