The haunting eyes of the woman on the wraparound ad on the 40-foot bus evoke pain, despair and hopelessness.
They are the eyes, authorities say, of a typical victim of human trafficking — vulnerable and scarred, most of the victims female and nearly half of them minors, all pawns of a modern-day form of slavery that is flourishing in Orange County.
Wednesday, law enforcement and numerous county and agency officials gathered at a news conference in Orange to discuss startling findings about the crime’s prevalence and its victims, and to unveil a public-awareness campaign to help clamp down on the problem.
“Human trafficking impacts every country in the world, and Orange County is no exception,” Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said at the multi-agency news conference held outside Orange County Transportation Authority headquarters.
“Orange County continues to be a prime target for human traffickers,” Hutchens said.
The striking bus ad is part of OCTA’s new “Be The One” public-awareness campaign, which includes exterior and interior ads on buses throughout the county.
The ads urge riders to call a national hotline (1-888-3737-888) or alert drivers when they see something suspicious. The OCTA also has trained more than 1,100 of its coach operators on how to spot and report human-trafficking crimes and to get help for victims.
“The good news is, we’re not going to hide (from the problem),” OCTA Chief Executive Darrell Johnson said at the news conference.
In 2013, there were 226 victims of human trafficking in Orange County, according to a 2014 Human Trafficking Victim Report released by the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force and discussed Wednesday
Since 2010, the Anaheim PD has been the lead law enforcement agency on the task force, founded in 2004 and managed by the nonprofit organization Community Service Programs Inc. The Huntington Beach PD is a major partner.
“We’ve come a long way in our fight against human trafficking, but there’s more work to be done,” Anaheim PD Chief Raul Quezada said.
Key findings of the 2014 Human Trafficking Victim Report include:
- Each month in Orange County, an average of eight new victims of human trafficking are identified
- 65 percent of victims are U.S. citizens
- Nearly half the victims (42 percent) are minors, and most are females
- Victims of sex trafficking – those forced into prostitution, pornography and stripping – account for 81 percent of victims. The others are forced into labor.
“It’s just an awful problem,” said Orange Country District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, whose agency in April 2013 established a special unit of prosecutors and investigators to crack down on human traffickers.
Rackauckas called perpetrators of human-trafficking related crimes “despicable.” According to the 2014 report, nearly 60 percent of perpetrators are between the ages of 20 and 29, while less than 1 percent are over age 50.
Last year, the number of human-trafficking-related arrests in Orange County more than doubled to 52, with 48 of the alleged perpetrators prosecuted, according to report findings.
A multi-pronged strategy involving several agencies is needed to fight human trafficking, several speakers said Wednesday.
Key to this strategy, Quezada said, is focusing on the rehabilitation of victims and after-care including food and housing, medical aid, job and educational support, social and emotional help, life skills training and legal/immigration services.
It’s an approach that has become a model nationwide, Quezada said.
“The cycle can be broken,” he said of victims left emotionally and, often, physically scarred from being forced into the sex trade or domestic servitude.
Many of these victims come from broken homes and come into contact with “guerrilla” pimps who use violence to force them into servitude or “Romeo” pimps who use the ruse of a romantic relationship to control their victims, said Ronnetta Johnson, director of victim assistance programs for CSP (cspinc.org) in Santa Ana.
“Traffickers target these minors with their vulnernabilities,” Johnson said. “Victims are taught that they can’t trust anyone.”
The report found that victims benefit greatly after they are rescued off the streets and provided services by the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force.
For more information, including a PDF of the 2014 Human Trafficking Victim Report, visit ochumantrafficking.org
Also visit octa.net/rescue for more information about human trafficking and the agency’s efforts to help combat it.