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Locals work to stop child sex trafficking

9:54 PM, May 19, 2011   |    comments
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SACRAMENTO, CA - The statistics are startling.

* Human trafficking is a $9 billion industry and the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the 21st century. (CAST- California Against Slavery and Trafficking)

* California is a top destination for traffickers of forced labor or sexual exploitation. (California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery Task Force)

* When it comes to child sex trafficking, Sacramento has ranked among the top five cities in the country. (FBI)

Sacramento has ranked as high as second as a child prostitution hotspot in the U.S. It's up there with cities like Las Vegas, Chicago, New York City and Oakland.

IN-DEPTH COVERAGE: Sex trafficking

The subject of selling sex and children is disturbing to many people, but in the Sacramento region, many community groups have been galvanized to help combat the problem locally and globally.

Nine in 10 young girls involved in sex trafficking or child prostitution in the Sacramento area come from a sexual or physically abusive environment, according to the FBI. To date, a FBI task force has recovered 200 children in the Sacramento area. Several of them were along Watt Avenue in Sacramento in an area often referred to as the Stroll.

"We found two girls as young as age 11," said Mike Rayfield,  supervisor of the Sacramento Innocence Lost FBI Task Force. "It's prominent particularly because of the interstate freeway system. We have Highway 80 going through here, Highway 50 and 99, and we're connected with Los Angeles and San Diego and Las Vegas, Reno, Portland, Seattle, so we kind of become a hub."

The interagency task force was formed in 2006 and is focused on rescuing girls and prosecuting the pimps. As part of the annual "Operation Cross Country" investigation, authorities have arrested numerous pimps and adult prostitutes.

Vicky Zito's daughter  was 17 when she was kidnapped from a shopping center in the affluent community of El Dorado Hills in March 2008. She was drugged, driven to the Bay Area, and sold for sex on Craigslist.

"My daughter was a victim of domestic minor sex trafficking," said Zito. "She was trafficked from El Dorado Hills to the Bay Area to Rocklin and back to Bay Area."

The FBI task force rescued Zito's daughter eight days later. Investigators said she had been under the grip of a pimp who lived just a few blocks away, ran in the same crowd, and coerced the girl into prostitution. The perpetrator got 12 years in federal prison.

Jenny Williamson, the founder of Courage to Be You and Courage House, is trying to rescue many of the girls victimized by sex trafficking. To date, her organization has raised a $1 million to provide a licensed group home and safe house for girls to escape the streets.

"We want to give them a home to run to," said Williamson. "We have a 3,200 square-foot house. We have 52 acres and a barn. We are ready to take six girls immediately," said Williamson. "We will be able to bring 60 girls home. We'll have 10 cottages -- six girls in a cottage and a house mom."

Williamson and Courage to Be You have held numerous awareness concerts at local area churches from Oroville to Elk Grove to Rocklin. She also has raised money to open a Courage House for girls in Tanzania victimized by sex trafficking.

Williamson said she was initially inspired to take action after seeing Pastor Don and Bridget Brewster of Lincoln combat child trafficking. The Brewsters sold their home and moved to Cambodia six years ago.

"We're not experts, but we knew something had to be done," said Bridget Brewster.

Through their non-profit Agape International Missions, the Brewsters have been battling sex tourism in Svay Pak, Cambodia, and have helped rescue more than 200 girls victimized by human traffickers.

"We're just at the tip of the iceberg right now. A lot of it just got started. With the follow through, I think it'll be amazing to see what happens to combat this evil over the next few years," said Don Brewster.

The Brewsters opened two facilities to help rescue and rehabilitate the girls-helping them build self-esteem, learn vocational skills, and receive spiritual guidance. The couple helped bring five rescued and rehabilitated girls back to the Rocklin and Roseville area. Three of the girls are attending a local high school while two others are in transitional schools.

The couple returned briefly to the area raise funds for their non-profit and to raise awareness to help further their rescue efforts in Cambodia. They return to Svay Pak in June along with about a dozen local volunteers.

"There's other hotspots throughout the country where trafficking is happening and there aren't the resources or facilities up there to help girls or people or to prevent trafficking," said Bridget Brewster.

Meanwhile, Origin Coffee and Tea in Rocklin is committed to combating sex trafficking one cup of coffee at a time. Co-owners Chad Salstrom and Mark South are both pastors. They started the volunteer-run business in January and donate all the proceeds to help rescue, restore, and rehabilitate sex trafficking victims in developing areas in India and Cambodia. They are also working with local girls who have been rescued from the streets.

According to Salstrom,  the business is working closely with International Justice Mission.  The coffeehouse co-owners say they have already raised nearly $6,000 in sales of crafts made by rescued trafficking victims to go to a recovery home in Cambodia. 

"I am surprised how many from our community in the greater Sacramento area are willing to join us to be selfless and fight in this selfish evil," said Salstrom.

Local churches in the Rocklin, Roseville, and Granite Bay area have raised thousands of dollars to help fight sex trafficking. Many of them continue to support awareness events.  Bayside Church will hold its "Thrive" anti-sex trafficking conference in August.

Local schools have gotten involved in the fight as well. In May, Oak Ridge High School held a Trafficking Awareness and Self Defense Day, inviting numerous experts in the field, including Truckee Chief of Police Nick Sensley.

Local community groups are also raising money to help sex trafficking victims with events like Run for Courage in Folsom in October

Local lawmakers like Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Sacramento, have also tried to shed light on the problem in the Sacramento region. He hosted a field briefing in Rancho Cordova (this week) which included the FBI, Sensley, Jenny Williamson of Courage to Be You, and Academy Award-winning actress Mira Sorvino. Sorvino starred in the 2005 movie "Human Trafficking" about a young girl trafficked across the U.S. border.

It's estimated that as many as 17,500 victims are trafficked into the U.S. every year, according to CIA research. Many of the victims of human trafficking are children, forced into prostitution. While it happens in developing countries, it's happening more prominently in the U.S.

A new documentary called "Sex and Money: A National Search for Human Worth" just shown at UC Davis, attempts to shed light on child sex trafficking in America.

Executive Producer Morgan Perry said, "People don't believe it's happening in the U.S. ... One of the girls we interviewed was Carrisa Phelps. She's from Fresno. That's where she was trafficked."

"I thought I was the only 12 year old," said Phelps. "I was told to lie."

Perry and her team of fellow journalists will embark on a 50- state tour and show the documentary beginning in August. They hope to effect change.

"One of the biggest issues we discovered while on the road is yes, we have a lot of (child sex trafficking) victims -- maybe 100 to 300,000. We also also have no safe place to put them," said Perry. "They estimate that there's 100 beds for rescue victims in the U.S. and that just means a safe place where these girls can find counseling and restoration and protection from pimps."

Perry went on to say, "One of the issues we found is if law enforcement gets them off the streets, law enforcement has no safe place to put them."

Williamson explained why she believes there's been an influx of time, money, and energy devoted to the cause. "I just think it's the social justice issue of our time," she said.

By Suzanne Phan, sphan@news10.net
Twitter: @suzannephan

Facebook: @SuzannePhanNews10

Related stories: 

Human trafficking focus of art, volunteers, and new laws 

FBI rescues teens from life of prostitution

Area artists head to Cambodia to combat child sex trafficking

End Child Trafficking- Sacramento and Co.

Reporter's Notebook: Global vs. Local. A local effort to fight a global problem

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