By Catherine Mijs for The Reporter News on March 7, 2014—
It happens on the Internet, in malls and on street corners and, until recently, it has gone largely unnoticed in Solano County.
Now, a group of 27 business professionals taking part in an annual leadership conference put on by the Vacaville and Fairfield-Suisun chambers of commerce are taking a stand in hopes of shedding light on human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children in the local community.
With a goal of helping to stamp out human trafficking, the class is planning a two-day fundraising event that will benefit Children’s Nurturing Project, a Fairfield nonprofit that advocates for Solano families and young children.
Vacaville police Sgt. Keith Hopper, Dawn LaBar of the Vacaville Planning Commission and registered nurse Debbie Davis, chief executive officer for Children’s Nurturing Project, are members of the Leading Change seminar that met Thursday. The afternoon portion of the meeting included addresses from Fairfield Police Chief Walt Tibbet and Vacaville Interim Chief Randy Ulibarri.
According to Hopper, Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area are two of the federal government’s most-recognized areas for human trafficking — and Solano County sits right between them.
“We see indicators of human trafficking, but it’s hard to prove that it’s happening (locally),” Hopper said, adding that he believes this is largely because “reluctant victims” are often too scarred “to testify or even give a statement to police.”
It is Hopper’s hope to give victims the support and resources they need — even if authorities can’t pursue a criminal case against those responsible.
“There are things going on in the county that people are unaware of,” he added.
Davis said she, LeBar and Hopper “are working on a county-wide collaborative with the District Attorney’s Office to look at the issue in Solano County in general — and it’s everywhere.”
“It’s kind of the hidden, underground epidemic that’s going on, so our project is focusing on prevention and community awareness, but also response,” said Davis, noting resources available to victims through her organization.
To combat trafficking, Davis said, focus needs to be placed on having immediate crisis counseling available, in addition to the ability to get children “out and into a treatment program or somewhere they feel safe.”
“It’s a communitywide project really involving all the players,” she added.
In addition to its other services, Children’s Nurturing Project provides counselors trained to work with children who have been traumatized or sexually exploited, Davis stated.
“It’s everywhere, but people are just now beginning to become aware of it,” Davis said of trafficking.
LaBar agreed, adding, “People are starting to talk about it and are realizing that it’s not just happening in other countries.”
“It’s such a huge money-maker for those who are criminally minded,” Hopper said. “Rather than trafficking drugs or guns, the things that law enforcement are more likely to catch you doing and that are very apparently wrong or illegal, when you have a ‘girlfriend’ and your ‘girlfriend’ is on a ‘date,’ it’s very hard for police to track that kind of crime.
“From a police perspective, we have to look beyond what we are seeing on the surface, because you can run across a young lady that, maybe she’s possessing drugs or prostituting herself and it’s easy to just look at the surface and think, ‘This is the crime that is happening,’ and what could be happening underneath is that she’s being forced to prostitute herself or forced to take drugs. That may be the mechanism the trafficker is using to keep her trapped.”
The goal, Davis said, is to recognize them as what they are — victims — rather than treating them as criminals.
“Maybe on the outside what they’re manifesting is criminal behavior, but it’s a byproduct of what’s happening on the inside, what they’re being forced to do,” Hopper added.
Law enforcement, he noted, is learning the importance of working alongside social services, nonprofits and even the community at large to combat trafficking.
“It’s a real human tragedy and I think it will take a collaborative effort … to put an end to this,” Hopper said.
The two-day Leading Change fundraising event will be held from 6 to 10 p.m. May 31 and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 1 at Wooden Valley Winery & Vineyards, 4756 Suisun Valley Road, Suisun Valley. The family-friendly event costs $50 per ticket and will feature wine, music, food and activities. For ticket information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.”
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