Civic, law enforcement and social service agency leaders convened Thursday at California State University, Northridge to shine a light on the Valley’s “dirty little secret,” discussing ways to combat and eradicate human trafficking — and how better to protect children and young women from this trap.
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Nury Martinez ’96 (Political Science) partnered with CSUN’s Strength United to host and organize the summit, “Reaching for Hope: Putting an End to Human Trafficking,” on Jan. 28 in the Northridge Center of the University Student Union.
“The average age of these human trafficking victims is 12 to 14 years old,” said Martinez, who represents the city’s Sixth District. “It’s disgusting, and it’s inhumane. These are American children — they’re from all over this country. The men who traffic children and purchase them are pedophiles and child molesters. And we have to see these kids for what they are — they’re victims. We all have to make sure they get out safely from these circumstances.
“This is not something we can resolve or get rid of overnight,” she continued. “The only way to really make an impact is arresting these pimps and putting them away for a very long time.”
In recent years, local law enforcement officers have adopted a “more enlightened” approach to this issue, providing more young victims with housing, social services and other resources — rather than arresting them — said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who joined Martinez in a panel discussion at the summit.
“Our children are not for sale!” said Ridley-Thomas, who represents the county’s Second District. “The more assertive we are, the more people will learn: This is not a problem in Southeast Asia — it’s a problem right here in the San Fernando Valley. We have a sizable number of youngsters who need our help, our love and our intervention.”
Ridley-Thomas has pushed for national legislation to combat human trafficking, and for increased penalties at the state level. In late 2015, Martinez formed a human trafficking task force for the Valley to encourage community members to provide information to law enforcement about what they’re seeing in their neighborhoods.
As a social service agency, one of the ways Strength United has empowered families is to encourage them to contact the Los Angeles Police Department’s human trafficking tip hotline via phone and email, said Kim Roth, executive director of Strength United.
Operated through the Michael D. Eisner College of Education, Strength United serves thousands of children and adults annually. It provides 24/7 support and crisis intervention, along with long-term counseling, victim advocacy and prevention-education programs to individuals and families affected by domestic violence, sexual assault, child maltreatment and other crimes.
As part of the new human trafficking task force, the LAPD and Martinez’s office are working with CSUN urban studies professor Henrik Minassians and his students to study the Valley corridors of Sepulveda and Lankershim Boulevards — problem areas for human trafficking. Minassians’ team will make recommendations for changes in factors such as signs, lighting and trash and debris collection, to make those areas less conducive to crime, said Lt. Marc Evans, vice coordinator for the LAPD.
At the summit, Evans joined Judge Catherine Pratt, of the LA County Compton juvenile court, and LA Supervising City Attorney Richard Schmidt ’77 (English) in a panel conversation about law enforcement and prosecution efforts to combat human trafficking.
One of the most moving discussions took place during the summit’s last panel, which included Stephany Powell, executive director of Journey Out, a community agency that works with survivors of human trafficking; Lisa Hornack, a licensed clinical social worker with Strength United; and Angelica, a survivor.
A Valley native, Angelica was newly enrolled in a master’s program at CSUN in fall 2013 when she met a young man on Instagram. The pair started texting, then dating and “I didn’t recognize the red flags,” she said. Angelica said that over time, she found herself manipulated into selling her body for money — and learned that the man was a pimp forcing other girls to do the same.
“I didn’t even know how to say to someone at CSUN, ‘I don’t know if I’m being pimped or what’s going on,’” she said.
She withdrew from school and after she was arrested for prostitution, Angelica’s family sent her out of state for three months. Her arrest led to a court referral to Journey Out, which is helping her through the recovery process, Angelica said.
“You have to redeem yourself every day,” she said. “I’m trying to get my life back.”
Roth, of Strength United, thanked CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison, who participated in the summit, for hosting the event and fostering the university’s commitment to the community. Roth praised the university’s investment in tackling challenging and disturbing local issues like human trafficking.
“We must all continue to shine a light on human trafficking,” Harrison told the crowd. “We must be vigilant in our efforts to end it.”
To provide a tip or for more information, call the LA Metro Task Force on Human Trafficking at (800) 655-4095.