Commentary: Better understanding how human trafficking works in Orange County

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January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and a crucial time to better understand human trafficking and learn to spot the signs of this heinous and pervasive crime that has benefitted from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, this business was generating roughly $150 billion per year for traffickers worldwide. Now, with millions of people seeking work, traffickers are preying on the desperate and the vulnerable to grow the crime. They recruit laborers through false advertisements of good-paying jobs and offer young people and children an escape from the tension and violence in homes falling apart due to unemployment, abuse or other trauma — then traffic them into the commercial sex industry.

Make no mistake, human trafficking occurs in Orange County. As service providers, victim advocates and educators who work in partnership with law enforcement agencies and on behalf of the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, we know firsthand the horrors of human trafficking. Collectively, we coordinate an informed response to human trafficking by working with subject matter experts and community partners who provide accurate information based on victim and perpetrator engagement and real-time fieldwork.


That said, we are concerned by the sensationalized, inaccurate and misleading information circulating on online platforms and among communities in Orange County. Images of children locked in cages or rumors of kids being kidnapped when parents turn their back are instilling unnecessary fear in the community. Further, this information does not match the facts of how human trafficking occurs.

The Truth About Human Trafficking of Minors

After more than a decade of combating human trafficking in Orange County and dealing with perpetrators and victims from across the United States, we find that the following is true:

The majority of U.S. female sex trafficking victims are not kidnapped. Most victims have an existing relationship with their trafficker. It is often that a relationship begins online, the victim is “groomed” over time and is eventually coerced into selling sex. Some even consider the trafficker a “boyfriend” when the cycle of abuse begins. The “girlfriend(s)” are pressured to sell sex and hand over the money to their trafficker.

Out of the hundreds of Orange County victims encountered by the Task Force, very few have met the legal definition of having been kidnapped. The truth remains that vulnerable minors are more likely to be “recruited” by someone with whom they have developed a relationship, in person or online, than by a stranger.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children acknowledges that, while any child can be targeted, traffickers largely prey on vulnerable youth — including children who frequently run away; those who have been sexually abused or raped; children with substance abuse issues and LGBTQ youth who have been kicked out of their homes or stigmatized by their families.

Unfortunately, sharing inaccurate social media posts can divert investigative and support resources from actual trafficking crimes. If we are looking for the wrong signs, it’s more likely that we will miss this crime when it happens right in front of us. As digital citizens, we must vet information we see online through credible sources before sharing it. Passing along anecdotal, manipulated or myth-based incidents takes precious energy and resources away from actual victims in Orange County.

During National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we must all stay aware of this global problem that affects us locally and act responsibly when sharing information or reporting suspicious incidents. It starts with knowledge: Helpful resources include the Polaris Project and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Visit the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force to see how it is combatting human trafficking locally or listen to free podcasts hosted by the Global Center for Women.

Ronnetta Johnson is the Executive Director of nonprofit Waymakers, which administers the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Sandra Morgan is the Associate Professor & Director of the Global Center for Women, Justice at Vanguard University and Co-Chair of the U.S. Public-Private Partnership Advisory Council to End Human Trafficking.

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