SAY plays vital role in the fight against human trafficking in Sonoma County

SAY plays vital role in the fight against human trafficking in Sonoma County

Did you know that January is designated as National Human Trafficking Awareness Month? The annual event has been recognized since January 2010 in an effort to bring attention to the epidemic of human trafficking in this country. Human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons or modern-day slavery, is a crime that involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services, or to engage in commercial sex acts.

According to the California Department of Justice, human trafficking is the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprise and is an estimated $32 billion-a-year global industry. California harbors three of the FBI’s highest child sex trafficking areas in the nation: Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and San Diego. The San Francisco Bay Area alone represents 43% of California’s trafficking incidences. Here in Sonoma County, more than 200 cases of human trafficking have been filed by the District Attorney’s office since 2011.

Social Advocates for Youth served more than 25 human trafficking victims last year by providing crisis intervention, food, shelter, transportation, trauma-informed individual counseling, referrals and much more. We are currently averaging two trafficking cases per month at our emergency housing facilities. Lisa Fatu, SAY’s director of youth crisis services, oversees of all our trafficking cases. “We make sure that we are there for young people when they need us most,” says Lisa. “A really important part of delivering services for victims of sex trafficking is making sure they know there is no judgement on our part and they are in a safe place.”

Who are these young people escaping a life of abuse? “There is no single profile of a trafficking victim,” explains Lisa, who has advocated for victims of trafficking for more than 16 years. “I’ve worked with clients from all different demographics. To say that this only happens to ‘that type of girl’ or young people from troubled homes is simply not true. The very real truth is that this happens to all different types of humans, including those that come from safe homes with loving parents.” While victims of human trafficking in Sonoma County are trafficked within our county, many are also trafficked to the nearby Sacramento area and Bay area. Conversely, victims from those areas are trafficked into Sonoma County.

Lisa has noticed a significant shift in the way trafficking occurs in recent years. “The last year in particular I’ve really seen a shift in the way human trafficking occurs. The internet has essentially taken it over. It’s not on street corners or in parks and alleys. This is now available all over the web.”

In addition to helping young people escape trafficking, Lisa and her team also lead efforts to educate the residents and local businesses of Sonoma County about the signs of human trafficking. “One of the things we make sure to communicate to residents and business is that purchasers and traffickers come in every shape, size, and color. They are not always older predators, often times they are their peers.”

To address the many issues surrounding human trafficking close to home, the Sonoma County Human Trafficking Task Force was formed. Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell chairs the multidisciplinary Task Force which includes representatives from Social Advocates for Youth, Verity, Santa Rosa Police Department, Polly Klass Foundation, Crossing the Jordan, Sonoma County Human Services Department, Petaluma Police Department, Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety, Sonoma County Health Services, Sonoma County Probation, Homeland Security, and more.

SAY has been part of the task force since its inception. This year, the task force hosted educational film screening and placed billboards in strategic parts of our county to both heighten awareness and to bring forth discussion as to how we, as a community, can put an end to this vicious crime and support those survivors to reclaim their lives in dignity and with respect.

The 2018 Sonoma County Human Trafficking Task Force billboard.

For Lisa, her ultimate goal is to show survivors “that they are worth more and there is more to this world than the evil they’ve experienced. My hope is that by SAY giving them a roof over their head, clothes, food, and a caring adult – none of which is dependent on their bodies being violated or abused – that they will be able to see a future for themselves.”

Young people should never have to face this unimaginable trauma. However, when this does happen in our community, SAY is there to advocate for victims of human trafficking in any situation where our agencies’ expertise is needed.

If you suspect someone is in danger or if you are in danger, please call 911. If something feels off or wrong, trust your instinct and don’t hesitate to call the local authorities. There is a local hotline available at 707-545-7273, as well as the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. This hotline is toll-free, confidential, and available 24/7.