While other kids her age were having a joyous experience inside Disneyland, Oree Freeman was across the street turning tricks.
Her pimp’s name was tattooed on her neck.
She was raped and beaten.
She was 12 years old.
Of all the messages delivered during Wednesday’s official launch of a revamped campaign aimed at combatting sex trafficking of children, the words delivered by Freeman arguably were the most impactful.
A victim of sex trafficking from age 11 to 15, Freeman, now 22, joined representatives from law enforcement, local government and nonprofit sectors on May 31 to introduce the campaign titled:
“Be the One to Help Out: Sex Trafficking. It’s Not What You Think. Children are Victims, Too.”
The statement, which empowers the public to be on the lookout – and take action – if they see signs of children being exploited for sex, will be placed on 10 Orange County Transportation Authority buses that travel through the county this summer.
“It’s your duty to fight for these kids,” Freeman told the gathering in front of the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, known as ARTIC. “They are your kids, too. Be the one to say something.”
Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer presided over the news conference, which included statements from Undersheriff Don Barnes of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Anaheim Police Department Deputy Chief Julian Harvey and Maria Hernandez, presiding judge of the Orange County Juvenile Court.
“It’s a story that has to be told,” Hernandez said of the awareness campaign. “These children are at the hands of some of the most insidious, devastating, corrupt individuals — those being the exploiters and the sex purchasers.”
Barnes cited statistics revealing San Diego and Los Angeles metropolitan regions as among the top 13 highest sex trafficking areas in the nation.
“That includes Orange County,” Barnes said.
The undersheriff also credited the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force with making a difference in how sex trafficking victims are perceived.
“For the first time, instead of seeing them as criminals…we started looking at them as victims,” Barnes said.
Formed in 2004, the OC Human Trafficking Task Force represents a collaboration of law enforcement, the District Attorney’s Office, victims’ services providers and faith-based groups joining forces to prosecute offenders, protect victims and prevent sex trafficking from taking place in the future.
The Anaheim Police Department is the lead agency for the enforcement arm of the task force, with the County of Orange Social Services Agency serving as a critical responder in cases of child sex trafficking and exploitation.
“More than half the victims rescued by the Human Trafficking Task Force were juveniles, which is a very sobering statistic, but it got us to redouble our efforts,” Harvey said.
Those efforts include training and re-training officers on how to identify human trafficking out in the field, the deputy chief said.
OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson said victims of sex trafficking are more likely to use public transportation over other ways to get around, and 1,100 OCTA bus drivers have been trained to spot the signs.
The sexual exploitation of children for financial gain is a complex crime, and too multifaceted for any one agency to solve, said Lita Mercado, director of victim assistance programs for Community Service Programs.
“This crime is a perfect storm of child abuse, neglect, sexual assault and domestic violence,” Mercado said. “It requires a multi-disciplinary response, which includes the community, which is why we are all here today. Today, we ask the community to join us and be the one to help out.”