By Doug Hoagland
Fresno police found 16-year-old Shauna—a human trafficking victim—in a rundown motel suffering from severe abdominal injuries. A trafficker who wanted her working the streets as a prostitute had repeatedly punched her to cause a miscarriage.
Stories like Shauna’s are common in the San Joaquin Valley despite the efforts of anti-trafficking agencies to prevent victimization and provide a lifeline to survivors. But now those groups have an important new tool because of work done by Fresno Pacific University.
FPU’s Center for Community Transformation (CCT) is collecting and organizing data from 23 law enforcement, social service and faith-based agencies from Bakersfield to Merced. “They need accurate information on recruitment methods used by traffickers, the needs of and services for victims and prevention and awareness efforts. Data leads the fight,” says Randy White, D.Min., CCT executive director. White worked with the 23 agencies on questions to create the new data base, known as the Central Valley Human Trafficking Project. Oversight comes from the Economic Opportunities Commission’s Central Valley Against Human Trafficking initiative, and the project coincides with Fresno Mayor Lee Brand’s Initiative to Combat Human Trafficking. The project could be a first in the nation. “We’ve not heard of this type of regional approach where all relevant agencies have agreed to share data,” White says.
‘These are human lives’
The project’s first report—representing statistics from 2019—was undergirded in prayer. White prays each time he’s notified an anti-trafficking agency has filed a report about a victim, a vulnerable teen, a trafficker, a prevention program and more. In 2019, White said 826 prayers, including 295 for victims. “These are human lives, people who are suffering, and families that have been ripped apart. They’re often the last, the least and the lost—people Jesus calls us to walk with,” White says. He doesn’t know the names or stories of the people he prays for. That information stays with agencies such as Breaking the Chains, a faith-based nonprofit in Fresno. Executive Director Debra Rush tells the story of Shauna (not her real name). She came from a dysfunctional family in Southern California and was a victim of sex trafficking before authorities placed her in a group home in Fresno. She ran away, and when she posted on social media seeking a place to stay, a trafficker messaged her within 10 minutes. After Fresno police rescued Shauna, Breaking the Chains placed her with a foster family trained to care for sexually exploited children. That was a year ago, and, Rush says, “It’s amazing to see where she is now.” On track to graduate from high school, Shauna has been baptized and continues to receive emotional support and life-skills education from Breaking the Chains.
Rush says the Human Trafficking Data Project provides an accurate snapshot of the problem in the Valley. “Without it, you don’t know where your strengths and your weaknesses are. With it, you can begin to provide some incredible prevention and education programs to really attack the problem.” White says, for example, anti-trafficking agencies can’t make smart decisions about hiring staff if they don’t know the first language of victims. According to the 2019 report, 55% of victims spoke English, followed by Spanish (33%). A few victims spoke Mandarin, Hmong and Punjabi.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Sean Biggs of the Fresno Police Department’s vice unit says the data project underscores increased efforts to stop exploitation. “Human trafficking has come out of the shadows, and it’s in full view with many law enforcement agencies taking up the fight against it,” Biggs says. In addition to providing a “clearer picture” of anti-trafficking efforts in the Valley, the data might lead to more resources for that fight. Grants and other monies are increasingly available to anti-trafficking agencies, but grantors often want data, he adds.
Other data from 2019 show:
- 76% of victims were 19 to 49 years old. The next biggest age category was 15 or younger (12%). “No little girl grows up and says, ‘I want to be a prostitute.’” White says. “Many fall out of foster care, end up on the streets and run out of options. That anyone chooses this life is a myth.”
- Pre-victims—those especially vulnerable to traffickers but not yet victimized—were concentrated in 13-to-15-year-olds (45%), followed by 16-to-18-year-olds (36%). Nineteen identified factors, such as previous sexual abuse, an adult boyfriend and history as a runaway, increase a young person’s vulnerability, according to the 2019 report. “This aspect of the research allows a great understanding of how pre-victims become victims and also indicates if they come to one our agencies for help,” White says.
‘Romeos’ target victims
Cynthia—a Fresno teenager and a pre-victim—was 14 when she got help from the Central Valley Justice Coalition. Christa Wiens (BA ’99, TC ’00), education coordinator at the faith-based coalition, says Cynthia (not her real name) lives in a high-poverty neighborhood where gangs have a strong presence. Her family is dysfunctional, and exploitation is a fact of life in her neighborhood.
A trafficker approached Cynthia multiple times on a city bus en route to school. Traffickers use common come-ons, according to Wiens. “Hey, baby. You’re beautiful. You wanna make a little money?” Or, “If you ever need a little extra cash, I know how you can get some real quick. I’ll take care of you.”
Cynthia was fortunate. She participates in a neighborhood organization where the Justice Coalition conducted a five-week class on human trafficking. “She heard for the first time there is actually something you can do about trafficking,” Wiens says. “She was able to hear us say, ‘We believe you. We don’t want this to happen to you.’” Even before the class ended, Cynthia acted on what she learned and called the National Human Trafficking Hotline to report the trafficker. Such information is forwarded to local law enforcement, Wiens says.
The trafficker who approached Cynthia is what officials call a “romeo,” and such men and boys are the most common method of recruitment, according to the 2019 report. Romeos often use social media, and some are gang members who infiltrate area high schools to target vulnerable girls, White says. “They manipulate girls to drop out of school and take online classes instead, which opens up the girls’ schedules. Then they use shame to force them into prostitution.”
All forms of human trafficking involve force, fraud and coercion, but not all trafficking involves sex. The project also collected data on victims of labor trafficking—individuals forced to work for free or reduced pay under threat of harm. The 2019 report cited 84 cases, with nearly half of victims working in agriculture, while others had jobs in domestic service and hotels.
FPU is using grant money from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Victims of Crime to compile data through 2021. The grant doesn’t cover all of FPU’s cost; the rest is covered by private donations. “For us it’s a labor of love,” White says. “This data affects decisions that affect human lives.”