Raising Awareness About Human Trafficking

By: Jeff Nazzaro

Over the last five years, UCR University Extension has partnered with the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) to educate hundreds of foster parents, group home workers, and social workers, along with teachers, high school students, concerned parents, and police officers about the ever-evolving risks and warning signs associated with the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC), or human trafficking.

“These trainings are raising awareness…”

These trainings are conducted in English and Spanish, and are raising awareness because now we don’t only have social workers being trained, but we also have the foster parents, family childcare providers, and preschool and elementary school teachers who go through the program,” said Dr. Guillermina Hernandez, UCR University Extension Director of Child and Adolescent Development. “We have members of the community from different fields who are working closely with families and children taking the classes. I’ve seen mothers bring their 12- and 13-year-olds to class because after taking this training they feel like their children need to hear it firsthand. It’s raising awareness and it’s having a positive impact in the community.”

“It’s having a positive impact in the community.”

Designed to help in the identification and prevention of CSEC, which affects as many as 300,000 children in the U.S. each year, according to Youth Advocate Program International, the program begins with an introductory module before diving deeper into the murky world of CSEC—euphemistically known as “the life”—and its associated traumas.

Joe Reyes Joe Reyes teaches the English-language version of the program. He comes from a law enforcement background, where he spent 10 years investigating sexual, elder, and financial abuse in state institutions and a further five working in internal affairs in the Department of Corrections, investigating abuses within the criminal justice system. He understands what abuse looks like but also that it is so often hidden in plain sight, even from the victims. “We jumped out there with the education part because a lot of people don’t really understand what human trafficking is and what falls under it and who are the possible victims,” Joe said. “The program is an introduction. The nuts and bolts of it is explaining where it happens, why it happens, and how it happens. There’s going to be people who are not great out there who take advantage of other individuals.”

Jennifer Hernandez The classes in Spanish are taught by Jennifer Hernandez, a counselor in the Riverside University Health System Behavioral Health Youth Hospital Intervention Program who works with vulnerable children who have been hospitalized for a variety of reasons, including human trafficking and CSEC. “These courses are very important,” Jennifer said. “They definitely impact the way that we engage with survivors, the way we provide services, and the way we are able to connect survivors with other services. It allows us to move towards giving these children hope and giving them a chance.”

“The program definitely impacts the way we engage with survivors of ‘The Life…’”

The second module educates those caring for children on signs to look for indicating interest or involvement in CSEC, and how to initiate and sustain discussions about the associated dangers. The training equips students not only with the key indicators to look for, but also the right way to approach at-risk youth and the right questions to ask. “One of the things we do is engage in a lot of discussion,” said Jennifer. “What might lead a child to reach out to someone who’s in the life or be attracted to the life? It’s important to notice the behavioral changes or the needs that are in the home.”

One of the challenges in recognizing involvement, according to Joe, is that often those who are involved don’t see it in the same terms as those who want to protect them. In such cases, it becomes even more important to recognize signs and continue to ask questions and start discussions.

“It’s not necessarily, ‘I’m a victim, I’m a victim,’” Joe said. “A lot of the times they don’t know they’re a victim. They don’t know they’re involved in sex trafficking or CSEC, so it’s not even in their vocabulary to say something is wrong or something has been happening to them. The people caring for them are tasked with being able to unpack all that, if they see those signs, and to ask certain questions and keep asking them. These are ongoing conversations, monthly: What’s going on, who’s in your life?”

As if the challenges weren’t stern enough, the evolution and proliferation of social media apps onto universally available smart phones has added a powerful new dimension to the issue of human trafficking and CSEC. As the introduction to a Polaris Project report on human trafficking and social media puts it, “The internet has dramatically reshaped how we buy and sell everything—including each other.” As such, the third module of the program is dedicated to exclusively to traffickers and social media.

“The internet has dramatically reshaped how we buy and sell everything—including each other.”

“CSEC and human trafficking are incredibly complex issues,” said Jennifer. “It doesn’t matter your race, your ethnicity, your socioeconomic status—anybody can be vulnerable to being exploited. Now, with social media, that’s even more the case. Traffickers don’t need to look a certain way, to be out in the streets recruiting. They can do that through the phone and a lot of the social media apps that children are utilizing, such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, WhatsApp, even dating sites. Every one of our students brings their own experience to the classes, and we talk a lot about how social media is utilized, what it might look like, and the importance of having conversations with children about that.”

Adding to the challenges facing educators and caregivers, as the virtual arena continues to change, so too does the real one. “It’s just not as in our faces anymore, because in the past it was the streetwalker on the street corner, and now everything’s online and everyone’s in hotels or houses, private areas and things like that,” Joe said.

The fourth module presents statistics related to CSEC and gives a rundown on available state and local resources and how to connect survivors with them. Among the many challenges are helping survivors receive the help they need and making sure they are receptive to it and stick with it. The needs of a survivor look different,” Jennifer noted. “For example, they might need a lot of basic healthcare. If they’re engaging in the life, they might need STD testing; however, a lot of our survivors don’t necessarily have the life skills to do that, so it’s important to then be able to provide that case management or, if you’re a counselor, to make that phone call with them and arrange for someone such as a mentor who has previously been in the life to go out to that appointment with that survivor. It empowers them and it also teaches them how to access help.”

“After these individuals get this help or get out of the life, it’s only good as long as they continue to seek that help.”

Added Joe, “After these individuals get this help or get out of the life, it’s only good as long as they continue to seek that help. In the short-term we’re doing really well. There are a lot of good strategies for the short-term—we can find them a place to go that’s safe to spend the night, where they’re going to have food and counselors and people to talk to—however, it’s the long-term, where they’re on their own, where we see kids who go back into the life, just because it’s easier. Or that’s all they’ve known. That’s one of the big things: it’s reprogramming their thinking to understand that that way of life is not necessarily the best way of life.”

For Jennifer, it’s important that her CSEC students understand what therapeutic treatment for survivors constitutes and that they understand that such treatment is often nonlinear, with stops and starts, successes and failures. “Sometimes the kids return back home, and they might continue to run away, because that’s just part of the behavior when someone’s engaged in the life,” she said. “It’s more planting a seed and teaching skills, and once the survivor’s ready then they’re going to make that change, but it’s a lot about teaching them about the resources, how to access them, and empowering them to utilize those resources.”

And all of that is contingent on first identifying the situation, then making sure the survivor is willing to accept help and gaining their trust to the point that treatment can begin. “If you are interested in working with this population, one of the things you need to understand is that it requires a lot of patience, a lot of empathy, and it takes time for there to be a trust relationship,” said Jennifer. “If you tell a survivor that you’re going to do something—like help them with a resource—and you don’t, it reinforces the thought that they’re not important or you don’t care.”

“For survivors, there is always the lure of a return to “the life,” often through pressure from the traffickers who first exploited them.”

One thing that has helped, according to Joe, is that law enforcement officers are now less likely to pursue criminal charges when young people are suspected of engaging in prostitution, even if they are over 18. At 21, it starts to change again, he said, but until then there are advocates who talk with them, and they are treated more like victims of domestic violence than suspected criminals. And while statistically, Joe said, it is mostly girls who are involved in CSEC, boys are impacted as well, though they rarely admit to being victims for fear of facing discrimination or being assaulted again. “For both there’s a reluctance to talk about it,” he said. “Many of the victims don’t talk about it as something that is bad. They call it ‘the life’ or ‘the game.’ This is their hustle. It’s glorified in movies and anecdotes about trips to Vegas and cash, clothes, and cars. But they were either tricked or defrauded.”

For survivors, there is always the lure of a return to “the life,” often through pressure from the traffickers who first exploited them. Jennifer said the trafficker-survivor relationship often looks like a domestic violence situation, where the survivor might be made financially dependent, with ruined credit, and have their lives and even those of their family threatened. Agencies tasked with helping them might turn out to be unresponsive, with traffickers using that to reinforce to them that they are not valued or cared for outside of the life. Through social media, predators can pursue survivors anywhere, whether they return to their parents or placed in foster care. “A lot of the times our survivors sometimes aren’t able to return home because they’ve already burned all their bridges back home,” Jennifer explained. “In terms of housing, survivors have to agree to turn off their location on their phones, because traffickers will try to locate them and bring them back into the life. There might also be a substance addiction that might have attracted them to the life or later enabled them to cope with the life.”

“It’s important to do self-care, self-reflection,” Jennifer said. “The information we are sharing can be a lot for people. A lot of the time they have not had exposure to the vulnerabilities and traumas these children have experienced.” Another important resource is those who have escaped and survived. Co-author of “The Slave Across the Street,” and founder of the SOAP Project, Theresa Flores, shares how her life as an All-American, blue-eyed, blond-haired 15-year-old teenager was enslaved into the dangerous world of sex trafficking while living in an upper-middle class suburb of Detroit. Her story peels the cover off of this horrific criminal activity and gives dedicated activists, as well as casual bystanders, a glimpse into the underbelly of trafficking.

“Another important resource is those who have escaped and survived. It helps to hear their struggles and their stories.”

Added Joe, “Some of the things we talk about are really harsh. I’ve had individuals cry in my classes. A lot of times it can be a rough subject to talk about. But if I can educate one person who can take something away and maybe identify something earlier or prevent something or have that talk with their child who’s thinking about going down that road, I think it worked and it’s well worth my time.”

Jennifer echoed those sentiments. “It literally can just be making that phone call and calling the human trafficking line—just doing that you’re already doing so much,” she said. “It’s a group effort. It’s not something anybody can do on their own. I think it is very empowering to be part of something that is so important. These are our children.”

Do you, or does someone you know, need help? Reach out to the Polaris Project.