District Attorney fights ‘stereotypes’ of human trafficking; Lawyer points out how to spot victims

La Jolla Bar Association members were briefed on how to spot and combat human trafficking at their March 9 meeting, held at the Empress Hotel on Fay Avenue. Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan, who has been battling the illegal activity for over a decade told those gathered, “We have an image of human trafficking, and it usually involves some international affair, some border crossing, some lines between states, some foreign national or immigrant, when in fact, sex trafficking is 80 percent domestic in the United States.”

She said the average age of a sex-trafficking victim is 16, adding that a study investigating 20 San Diego high schools found confirmed cases in 90 percent. “We find victims all the way across the county. We’ve had sex-trafficking cases in Carlsbad, La Jolla ... from every area,” she explained.

Stephan said social media has revolutionized the recruiting techniques of sex traffickers. “When I first started with this issue, it used to take place in low socio-economic areas. That’s changed now because of the Internet. Through social media, traffickers and recruiters are reaching into our children’s bedrooms, and using their devices to lure them and recruit them,” she said. In recent cases, recruiters were using a fake modeling agency as an excuse to get close to the victims.

Up until 2012, sex-traffic victims under age 18 weren’t viewed as such if there was consent. “If you are a minor, it’s totally irrelevant if you consent to prostitution,” Stephan said. “It’s incredible to imagine that if a child under age 18 is molested by a stepfather, teacher or whatever it may be, society acknowledges that’s a crime. But if that child is subjected to 10 acts of sex abuse every night at a hotel where he or she is being sold, somehow society feels like they’re just prostitutes, and no longer a victim of sexual abuse.”

She further pointed out that legislation for human trafficking has been late-coming in the United States. Until 2000, there wasn’t a federal law tackling the issue, and the state version didn’t come into existence until 2005. “My feeling is that the reason we didn’t have a law until 2000 is that we had a belief that this didn’t happen in our country. It happened somewhere else. It didn’t make sense until we realized we really needed it.”

How to spot sex traffic victims

In January 2016, a state law went into effect requiring mandatory reporting of minor-age victims of commercial sexual exploitation. “Before this law passed, if a teacher overheard that a child in school was engaging in prostitution, the teachers did not have a duty to report that because it was not considered child abuse,” Stephan said.

She has been training teachers, school nurses and hospital personnel about how to spot victims of sex traffic. Some of the behaviors include a steady need of abortions, possession of material objects (jewelry) that haven’t been accounted for and frequent disappearances from the home. Minors who’ve experienced homelessness or are in the foster care system are at a higher risk of becoming victims.

“When I train school nurses, I’ve had some of them in tears because I’ve described scenarios they’ve seen,” Stephan continued. “(For example) on Friday, a young girl comes in and says she has cramps, she needs to go home. With her in the room there’s another girl, posing as her friend, but that girl is only there to make sure she says the right thing so she can go.

“Now you wonder, ‘Why is this girl not telling the nurse what’s happening to her? How she’s now going to be used for prostitution all weekend while claiming to be at her girlfriend’s house?’ The reason is the gangs know exactly what to do; they’ve given her drugs and alcohol and put her in a compromising position at a party with lots of pictures taken. What do teenagers fear the most? Being humiliated by their classmates. No force is needed. No chains are needed. The psychological chain of feeling ashamed and that you’re going to be embarrassed is enough for teenagers to do everything they’re asked to do.”

Another problem in the fight against sex trafficking is that victims don’t consider themselves such. “We need to be the eyes and ears to see them. And report it,” Stephan concluded.

To report a victim of sex trafficking: Call 1 (888) 3737-888 or text BeFree (233733).