Local agencies put spotlight on human trafficking

January 11, 2018

County leaders and officials this week proclaimed the month of January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month in keeping with a tradition started by U.S. President Barack Obama back in 2010.
This Thursday, Jan. 11, is the actual day when awareness of human trafficking — and strategies to end it forever — are brought under the national spotlight.
“To stand in solidarity, we’ve asked everyone to wear blue on that day,” said Chee Yang, program director at the Valley Crisis Center. “This whole month, we are willing to provide presentations to groups so people can learn more about what human trafficking is in Merced County. A lot of people don’t realize it’s happening in our backyard."
The San Joaquin Valley — because of its central location in the state and closeness to Highway 99 and Interstate 5 — is a strategic area for trafficking. Sex trafficking is tied to prostitution and runaway kids out on the streets, a vulnerable population.
“One of our concerns is teens who are trafficked,” said Scott Pettygrove, the director of the county’s Human Services Agency. "HSA has a program called Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children which works with children who have been sexually exploited.”
Pettygrove attended the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday when the official proclamation was made.
In addition to the HSA program, Merced County also contracts with the Valley Crisis Center, the county’s primary domestic violence service provider.
“The majority of Crisis Center clients are adults,” Chee said. “We are a non-profit agency, and we support individuals in Merced County with domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking and provide services in crisis intervention, prevention education, counseling, peer support for groups and individuals, legal services such as restraining orders, and we have an emergency shelter and transitional housing program. We have a satellite office in Los Banos and advocates located at UC Merced, Merced College and three of the continuation schools, Valley Merced, Valley Los Banos and Valley Atwater. We also have a very unique program, the Empower program, for youth ages 18 to 24 through MCOE. We also work with at-risk youth at Juvenile Hall through a program called Healthy Relationships where we provide advocates to model building positive relationships."
Chee added, "With HSA, we have a Family Violence Advocate. The advocate responds along with the caseworkers on CPS calls and domestic violence crisis calls. While the social worker is providing what’s best for the kids, our advocates are finding resources for the moms or the dads, who are the adult victims."
She explained, "Valley Crisis Center supports both labor and sex trafficking prevention. The national slavery prevention aspect is focused on victims of servitude or labor trafficking. We have cases where workers’ wages are not properly given, and we’ve worked with individuals who have come over from other countries and are not documented. We expedite their legal process, depending on what their situation is, to let them stay here. We’re an ag community, and that’s why our numbers for labor trafficking are so high. We’re close to 99 and I5, and Merced is known to be a truck stop area, and that’s where the sex trafficking comes in."
Describing the extent of trafficking in Merced County, Chee said, "From April 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017, we’ve identified 56 victims of human trafficking. Of those 56, nine were minors and 47 were adults. Victims were both male and female and both foreign and domestic."
She said, "I don’t have the age of the stats, but victims in the Central Valley can be as young as 5 years old, and all the way to 70. Our most at risk population is youth that self-identify as LGBTQ."
When asked how Valley Crisis Center helps victims, Chee said, "We have a 24-hour crisis line. When victims call our crisis line, we meet them in a safe place or they come to our office. We do a lot of outreach and presentations, and we encourage individuals to contact law enforcement. We work closely with the Merced Police Department team involved in trafficking. Undercover law enforcement staff members go to motels and do checks and build relationships. The ChapSticks given out have a bar code with our crisis line number embedded. It’s a great way for individuals to contact us."
She continued, "We’re part of the Central Valley Trafficking Coalition that covers Merced County to Kern County, and Merced County’s trafficking numbers make up 30 percent of the Coalition’s number. The Coalition’s outcomes from 2010 to 2017 are 480 individuals that have been trafficked."

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