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EDITORIAL: Fresno puts sex traffickers on notice

The Fresno Bee - 1/11/2018

Jan. 09--Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Baby Bear. It's appropriate that Bee reporters Rory and Aleksandra Appleton bought matching T-shirts for their new family emblazoned with grizzlies on them.

After reading their powerful, often infuriating, Bee series this fall on sex trafficking -- with children among the most in demand by predators -- we'd like to see all Valley residents wearing shirts symbolizing their willingness to fight like grizzlies against human traffickers.

If ever there was a time when we need residents who are as protective as bears, now is our moment. It's time to stand in a fearsome pack, bare our fangs and claws and let out a mighty roar -- "No, not our children. We are coming for YOU."

This month two significant collaborations should put sex traffickers on notice that Fresno's not their open playground anymore.

Laying down the law

On Jan. 19, Fresno County's juvenile court, headed by Judge Kimberly Nystrom-Geist, the juvenile court's presiding judge, will establish a courtroom dedicated solely to human trafficking cases.

This new court -- patterned after similar, successful courts in other California counties -- will allow a judge with specialized training to work with partner agencies to ensure children caught up in the sex trade receive appropriate help. That means they won't be walking out of the courtroom still as uninformed and cowering to their predators as before. They've got "people," technology, psychology, financial aid and the law to fight back.

Former Fresno County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kimberly Gaab says the commitment to collaboration within the legal community to addressing human trafficking is unique in her experience. At a recent meeting, every office involved in the effort sent its highest-ranking official, not just a representative. It's "like nothing I have ever seen," she said.

The Public Defender's office took the lead role in advocating for the human trafficking court. That includes a talented grant writer, who obtained a three-year, $383,651 grant from the Judicial Council of California to fund the new endeavor.

Stop the Traffic to Stop Trafficking

On Thursday at noon, the Central Valley Community Foundation, led by former Mayor Ashley Swearengin, will announce that it is joining seven area nonprofits and local law enforcement leaders supporting the Pledge 2 Stop Trafficking campaign. The foundation is the Valley's foremost philanthropic organization, distributing millions each year to worthy community causes.

Swearengin's support is more than "best wishes" for its success. She will pledge the foundation's intention to match all donations to the Stop the Traffic to Stop Trafficking event from 2017 and up to $1,200 this year.

That $1,200 -- or more -- could be raised Thursday during a Stop the Traffic to Stop Trafficking event. From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., volunteers will take to the streets, stopping traffic to raise awareness and collect money for direct services to local victims of sex trafficking.

Tax-deductible donations also can be made online or by writing a check. The event is sponsored by Breaking the Chains, a nonprofit sponsor of the event, which assists victims of sex trafficking to restore their lives.

These events are just the most recent and high profile of efforts in the Valley.

"It's getting worse"

Human trafficking is a stain on the central San Joaquin Valley, according to Rory Appleton's research, with thousands of victims "both female and male, young and old, rich and poor, white, black, Hispanic, Asian. It's an industry that thrives on targeting your children. And despite an organized, coordinated response from a coalition of law enforcement and advocacy groups, it's getting worse."

We have a lot of catching up to do. Recent decades have seen crime-fighting resources gobbled up and dominated by the nationwide war on drugs.

Gangs and cartels changed their strategies when the pressure on drugs got too hot. Far easier was cashing in the Valley's naive and needy children and vulnerable immigrants, who were easy prey for violent people who want to harm them. Gang leaders quickly found easy pickings for what they consider low-hanging fruit.

Selling women and children into prostitution was a low priority for law enforcement, with victims of vicious pimps often arrested, then released back to the streets within hours. The brutal people who pay for sex also were released quickly or let off with soft sentences. Their identities remained primarily hidden.

But all that is changing as selling women and children for sex is now being seen as the human slavery crime it truly is. Europe has used this Scandinavian model for decades, but the U.S. and particularly the Valley is late to the game. Women in modern terms are identified as the victims in need of help, are not charged with crimes, and are given help to escape a life no healthy person ever would voluntarily choose.

An army of truth-tellers

The Fresno Police Department and the Fresno County District Attorney's Office have partnered with a variety of advocacy groups that emerged in the seven years since the police changed their tactics. It is now common for advocates to assist police during raids, with law enforcement taking charge of the traffickers and the advocates taking the trafficked.

We are grateful to the courageous women survivors who told their stories to The Bee and are taking to microphones all over the Valley. They use their names, their faces, their true stories to save others. We congratulate them and we honor them for their life-saving service to the community.

As a news organization, we argue for truth, however painful. The police post mugshots on their website of the traffickers and those caught paying for sex. We would like to see links to that slide show all over social media.

If there is anything that terrifies sex criminals more, it's for people to know the truth about their predatory behavior. You see proof of that in the millions paid out by wealthy men to silence their victims.

Not only does showing their faces hold them accountable, but also warns the community, especially those who innocently trust and admire these bad actors. Let the risk of being socially ostracized, suffering broken friendships, families and destroyed careers hang in their minds when they make the decision to abuse a victim forced into the sex trade.

That's not to say the law is merciless. First-time offenders caught attempting to pay for sex have an opportunity, with a guilty plea, to pay $500 for a series of classes to educate themselves. Bear in mind that just because this is their first time getting caught, that doesn't mean it's their first time as an abuser. They may be ignorant, but most know how to avoid capture.

This successful program has been used in Fresno for 20 years and the recidivism is low -- about 6 percent, according to the police department.

Prevention is key

There is much more work to be done to draw blood from the sex trafficking cartel here, primarily in prevention. Most of the resources are going to programs that deal with consequences only after the victims have been traumatized, often for life.

It is far more cost effective to intervene with people at high risk of being victims or perpetrators before they harm others or become victims themselves. That is a deep discussion we will have another day.

For now, all those involved in stopping the scourge say education is key. Experts say children should be taught to be wary of the sex trade at least by middle school, if not before. School officials and community members need to remember that children need a real-time education that prepares them for the world they are growing up in now, not the world their parents or grandparents grew up in yesterday.

For parents who want to start teaching their children, lesson plans for all ages are provided on the website of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, missingkids.com.

Fresno also needs to learn to become a city of engaged bystanders. If you see something, say something.

Much needs to change if sex traffickers are to hear the roar from the pack that the free ride in Fresno is over. Mama Bear and Papa Bear are guarding baby bear. They have friends. And they have teeth.


(c)2018 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

Visit The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.) at www.fresnobee.com

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