Human trafficking cases in Orange County have been making big headlines in the last several days, and local professionals and activists who organize to fight modern slavery see it as proof their efforts are bearing fruit.
“Obviously I’m pleased that the law seems to be working and building momentum,” said Kim Yim, a San Clemente anti-trafficking activist and author. “I think it’s the beginning.”
Yim is the co-author of “Refuse to Do Nothing: Finding your Power to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery.” She also runs the blog Abolitionist Mama and is a charter member of the San Clemente Abolitionists group that raises awareness and money for human trafficking victims.
The first and most prominent trafficking case in the news over the last week was the arrest of Saudi princess Meshael Alayban, 42, of Irvine suspected of holding domestic servants against their will. Police arrested Alayban after a Kenyan woman escaped the home and flagged down a bus for help. Alayban paid $5 million in bail and is due back in court July 29, according to City News Service.
In a separate case over the last week was the first Orange County conviction under tough new anti-trafficking laws; prostitute Cierra Melissa Robinson, 28, helped her alleged pimp force a 14-year-old runaway into having sex for money with multiple men daily. The suspected pimp, Chuncey Tarae Garcia, 33, will face a jury in a separate trial that includes rape charges, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s office.
The anti-trafficking infrastructure in Orange County
The new Proposition 35 anti-trafficking law passed by voters in November 2012 raises sentencing for sex and labor trafficking in the state to match federal sentencing laws.
“[Prop 35] Increases prison sentences and fines for human trafficking convictions,” according to the official voter information from the state. “[It] requires convicted human traffickers to register as sex offenders. [It] requires registered sex offenders to disclose Internet activities and identities.”
Yim also said the new law allows prosecution under Prop 35 to include makers and distributors of child pornography. The San Clemente Abolitionists were big supporters of the proposition, and organized support locally last fall.
In the case of possible adult human trafficking victims -- whether for sex or labor -- police and prosecutors have to prove the person was subjected to “force, fraud and coercion,” said Linh Tran, administrator of the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force.
But with a minor, as in the Robinson-Garcia prostitution case, it’s black-and-white. The child is automatically designated a victim of human trafficking, she said.
Once police or deputies identify a trafficking victim -- as happened in Garden Grove with the 14-year-old forced prostitution victim -- they call in the experts at the OC Human Trafficking Task Force to provide food and shelter for the victim, Tran said.
The task force, led by the Anaheim Police Department and OC Child Protective Services, is a coalition of nonprofits, churches and government agencies that work to prevent trafficking and help it’s victims.
Dr. Kim Salter, a psychologist, is a representative to the task force from the Laguna Beach office of the National Organization for Women.
“Orange County has one of the most inclusive [task forces] in the country,” she said. “We all work together to not only find and prosecute traffickers, but also to help the victims. We try to make sure that their lives progress and get better and they’re not victimized again.”
Salter said her group helped set up training for both law enforcement officers and for volunteers involved in the task force.
“The police departments have to be trained in how to spot [trafficking situations],” she said. “They usually have one or two officers trained to to spot it. [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] also has a strong presence in Orange County.
“When we educate church groups and community organizations, they get excited and want to go search it out,” Salter added. “We have to explain to them this is big business. This mob-level.”
Many well-intentioned volunteers can also get overzealous trying to help trafficking victims if they don’t have training in how the system works, Salter said.
“You can’t just decide, ‘oh, I want to take this family in,” she said. “There’s protocol. [But] The community works pretty well together -- you don’t have to have all the answers, but you have to know where to go to get them.”
Tran said minors and adult victims are presented with a number of choices -- some minors have to go to juvenile hall for their own protection. But in general, she said victims are presented with a slate of choices, depending on their case. Many choose shelters in adjacent counties -- there are no human trafficking victim shelters in Orange County, Tran said.
But however the victim chooses to proceed, the task force meets his or her basic needs.
Growing problem, growing awareness
Tran said the problem is also growing in Orange County -- even south OC which many view as more affluent and less prey to crime than north OC.
“I don’t have numbers for that, but cases happen all over the county,” Tran said.
But awareness is also growing, leading to more victims saved and traffickers prosecuted, she said.
Alayban allegedly kept her servant’s passport in a bank safe, forcing her to work daily 16-hour shifts for a fraction of the pay she was promised, according to CNS. But the Kenyan woman’s escape from the Alayban household is proof that anti-trafficking education and outreach efforts are working, Tran said.
“It’s not very often we have a victim coming out and saying, ‘I need help,’” Tran said. “Usually, we have to go find them. [The Kenyan woman] was informed about human trafficking and the hotline at the U.S. Embassy when she went to get her visa.”
The “hotline” refers to the national human trafficking alert line that tipsters can call from anywhere in the country to alert authorities of possible slavery situations, Tran said. The number is 1-888-3737-888.