It was a rude awakening to examine the murky underworld of human trafficking while working on this story about the Second Annual Anti-Human-Trafficking Conference, sponsored by Coachella Valley Sexual Assault Services (CVSAS). The event will take place Friday, Oct. 18, at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa in Rancho Mirage.
According to a July piece at BusinessInsider.com: “The United States, along with Mexico and the Philippines, was ranked one of the world’s worst places for human trafficking in 2018. In the U.S., there is no official number of human-trafficking victims, but estimates place it in the hundreds of thousands. … The most human-trafficking cases have been reported in California, Texas and Florida, but every state in the U.S. has reports of human trafficking. … More than 300,000 young people in the U.S. are considered ‘at risk’ of sexual exploitation.”
A large percentage of individuals who are trafficked wind up as sexual slaves—because selling sex so lucrative. A July article in USA Today noted: “Annual profits per victim were highest in developed countries, because traffickers can charge more for sex acts. The International Labour Organization estimates annual rates of around $80,000 per victim in developed countries. … In 2018, one in seven reported runways was likely (to become) a victim of child sex trafficking. … The U.S. State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report found the Department of Justice opened significantly fewer human-trafficking investigations in 2018 compared to 2017, dropping from 783 to 657. It also reported significantly fewer prosecutions: 230, down from 282. Victims are still arrested for crimes they were forced to commit by traffickers.”
Against this disturbing backdrop, the Independent spoke recently with Winette Brenner, the program director at CVSAS.
“Our goal is to provide supportive services regardless of your race or socioeconomic stance. All of our services are free of charge,” Brenner said. “We have a 24/7 hotline, and we provide individual counseling, advocacy accompaniment, community resources and referral services. It’s any help that you (the victim) need as far as we can provide within our scope of (involvement in responding to) sexual assault, domestic violence or human trafficking. That’s what we’re here for—and we’re here for the victim and the significant other and the family members, because when a crime is committed, it doesn’t only happen to the victim; it affects the whole family as a unit.”
Sexual-assault victims who contact CVSAS either at the La Quinta office or via the around-the-clock hotline (800-656-4673) are provided with an advocate to accompany them to Eisenhower Medical Center to meet with members of a Sexual Assault Response Team, including a forensic nurse (who would perform an exam and gather evidence of the assault) and a member of local law enforcement.
Brenner said that in July, 18 victims sought CVSAS support; in August, 14 victims did. Those numbers are higher than average—but far from unusual.
“The number of victims each month can vary from a low of around seven to a high of around 16 to 18,” Brenner said. “The fall and winter months tend to be less active, but from March through September, the numbers go higher.”
CVSAS also offers one-on-one and group counseling, and visits schools with presentations on prevention, intervention, how to recognize healthy/unhealthy relationships, and red-flag warning signs of abusive behaviors.
“The presentations are for all school ages, and can include parents, because it’s important for parents to know the signs of their child being in trouble,” Brenner said.
The Anti-Human-Trafficking Conference is important, Brenner said, because human trafficking is not only a global problem—it takes place locally, too.
“Our goal is to bring awareness and knowledge about what’s going on in our own backyard,” Brenner said. “We want people to be able to recognize what human trafficking is, and recognize the number of layers that human trafficking represents. Our theme this year is ‘Educate to Eradicate.’ It’s so important that we educate to end it. … It’s going to take all of us.
“We work extremely hard to stage fundraisers to raise the money to keep this conference free of charge for the public. It’s really important to us to get as many people as possible to come and get this information.”
One of those fundraising events is slated for this Wednesday, Sept. 18, at the Mary Pickford is D’Place theater in Cathedral City. It’s a special screening of the film Trafficked starring Ashley Judd, Sean Patrick Flanery, Anne Archer and Patrick Duffy, among others.
“It’s a red-carpet event, and one of the film’s producers, Conroy Kanter, of KK Ranch Productions, is going to be there to conduct a Q&A after the showing,” Brenner said.
Tickets are $12, and the screening starts at 6 p.m.
Brenner said the conference will feature powerful presentations.
“One of our speakers represents an agency called Destiny Rescue that works with human trafficking in Cambodia and in the Los Angeles area,” she said. “They will be speaking about how human trafficking evolves and how people get trapped in it. Another speaker will talk about the social impact and advancement of human trafficking, as well as how active bystanders can make a difference.
“We’ll have a session about social media and dating apps, talking about how people get involved (through those means) so easily in human trafficking. … Another of our speakers will be a deputy from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Anti-Human-Trafficking Task Force, who will give a talk on ‘Human Trafficking 101’ and give us tips we need to know.
“Our keynote speaker this year is the executive director of an agency named Saving Innocence. He’s a very powerful speaker about human trafficking, the different layers of it and what it looks like, and what to do when you see it. We’ll also have Tika Thornton, who is a survivor of human trafficking at a very young age in the L.A. area. Currently, she works for a sex-trafficking task force out of Long Beach. Lastly, a presenter from Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Palm Desert will show some self-defense (tactics) so that if you’re in a (threatening) situation, you could use these tips to get yourself out of that situation.”
I asked Brenner for an example of how a local resident might unwittingly come in contact with a human-trafficking victim.
“When you see a child in front of a bank selling candy, as innocent as that seems,” she said. “If you speak to that child, you may find out that, even though they are in the La Quinta area, they are from Rancho Cucamonga or San Bernardino. If you ask questions like, ‘Where are your parents? Why are you out here by yourself?’ they totally scramble to come up with answers, because they’ve also been groomed. You can be guaranteed that somewhere in the parking lot, there’s someone watching that child, and if you talk for too long, that’s a red flag, and they’re going to run.”
Brenner said human trafficking is an issue that affects the entire community.
“We have the border right here,” she said. “Straight down Interstate 10, you have all of these truck stops and places where kids can be taken. So we just want parents to be aware and gain more knowledge—and it’s not going to cost you anything except a little bit of time.”
The Second Annual Anti-Human Trafficking Conference, sponsored by Coachella Valley Sexual Assault Services, takes place at 8 a.m., Friday, Oct. 18, at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa, 71333 Dinah Shore Drive, in Rancho Mirage. Admission is free. To reserve a spot, call 760-568-9071, or visit www.eventbrite.com/e/2nd-annual-anti-human-trafficking-conference-tickets-71752641081. Seating is limited, but if space is available on the day of the conference, walk-up guests will be accommodated.