agencies put spotlight on human trafficking
By BEVERLY BARELA
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