Sex trafficking happens all over the world, but is an exceptionally prevalent problem in San Diego, one of the FBI’s worst 13 areas for child trafficking. As the first city after crossing the U.S. and Mexican border, both local girls from poor communities and immigrants are vulnerable to exploitation because they are separated from their families and often in desperate need of money.
Kathi Hardy knows the problem personally. Both she and her husband struggled with drug addictions in her 20s. Drug-related problems led to the loss of her marriage, the loss of her house, and the loss of her job. On the streets, she met someone who said he could help her, but who instead tricked her into trusting her and exploited her as a prostitute.
Hardy is now the director of Freedom from Exploitation, a nonprofit that helps victims regain their life and mental health by offering support services and referrals. She does this nonprofit work on top of her full-time job conducting research on children and adolescents who have been exploited. Through the state department, she also volunteers as a peer advocate to educate and reform men arrested for buying sex.
The program is commonly referred to as “John School” and is required of first time sex offenders. The goal is to show men the damaging effects their ‘purchases’ have. The five session program includes:
- Community members discussing how prostitution undermines neighborhood families, housing prices, and overall safety.
- Reformed sex offenders talking about how they lost their families, their kids, their jobs, and their self-respect, and discuss solutions to sexual addictions.
- Social workers or past prostitutes explaining the mental effects prostitution has on the girls, including PTSD, depression, and drug and alcohol dependencies.
- Police officers explaining the legal consequences if they are caught again.
“I do John’s School to put a face to it. I am passionate about this because I am a recovering addict and former prostitute,” Hardy said.
The program has a high success rate. In a follow up analysis conducted by the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, only 3.5 percent of the John School graduates purchased sex again.
Educating “Johns” is one way to reduce the demand for prostitutes. Trafficking experts believe demand reduction is one of the most efficient ways to deal with sex trafficking.
Demand reduction is also practiced by instilling a respect for women in boys from a young age. The Gentlemen’s League at the Encanto Boys and Girls Club teaches them gender equality and how to treat women with dignity.
Some activists work to reduce demand by fighting for harsher penalties on men caught buying sex, including longer prison terms and higher fines. However, these methods are generally less effective because the perpetrators often don’t have the money to pay and cannot earn it if they spend more time in jail.
Most exploited girls share certain risk factors, according to San Diego police lieutenant Debra Farrar. Trafficked women often:
- come from troubled homes – they can be runaways or they live in a foster home.
- have anger issues.
- have severe self-esteem issues.
Young females who have crossed the border are also at a high risk of exploitation. They don’t speak the language, they have no family or social support near them, and they fear going to the police.
When these types of girls are feeling alone and vulnerable is when pimps enter the picture, Hardy said. “They run away, there’s poverty, they need protection and food, and then the boyfriend comes along.”
The pimps cozy up to girls online or introduce themselves in person. The pimp-prostitute relationship frequently begins as a seemingly innocent and caring relationship. He seduces her with promises of love and money, then tells her that ‘she owes him.’ That’s when the exploitation begins, according to Farrar.
To reduce the number of vulnerable girls, Project Concern International, a San Diego-based international nonprofit, runs a program called Girls Only! at the Encanto Boys and Girls Club. The program aims to increase girls’ self-confidence, empower them to avoid dangerous situations, and teach them how to overcome personal issues such as anger and depression.
Farrar, who frequently talks to the girls in the after-school program, said the program has been effective even in the beginning stages.
“Just being there for the girls encourages them. They really feel empowered as part of this group. Parents love it too, and say their daughters’ grades have improved,” Farrar said.
Marissa Cardwell, an employee of the Boys and Girls Club and the Girls Only! facilitator, feels a personal connection to the program.
“I grew up in the area, I know these streets, and I know what kinds of pressures these girls are feeling…situations [they ask me about] remind me of myself at that age,” she said. In the program, she organizes a variety of activities for the girls to learn and become empowered.
MULTIMEDIA: Marissa Cardwell explains the Girls Only! program
Though the Girls Only! program currently exists only at the Encanto location, an analysis of the curriculum is under way and an expansion to other clubs will follow.
California Senate Bill 1193, passed in 2012, requires a poster to be placed where victims and witnesses may see them. Specifically, they must be visible in sexually oriented businesses such as strip clubs, massage parlors and hotels, and businesses where trafficking is prevalent, such as truck stops.
The poster is in three languages: English, Spanish, and the county’s most prevalent Asiatic language. It describes situations that constitute human trafficking and supplies three hotlines for victims and witnesses to call. The goal is for the increased hotline visibility to lead to more tips, enabling law enforcement and recovery agencies to arrest the perpetrators and assist the victims.
The bill was introduced in 2012 by Senator Darrell Steinberg and advocated for by Autumn Burris, a former prostitute. Nonprofit, faith-based, and community organization employees and volunteers will visit relevant businesses and compile a list of those with no poster displayed. If the business refuses to display the poster, it is subject to penalty fees. According to NBC San Diego, a similar poster campaign in Texas led to a 20% increase in the number of trafficking reports to police.
“This poster is the first time that something is done to address the businesses very seriously,” said Marissa Ugarte, director of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Commission. The Commission is a locally based organization that works in the U.S. and Mexico to prevent sex and labor trafficking and plays an integral role in planning the implementation of the poster campaign.
“Prevention is key to decreasing all forms of human trafficking,” Ugarte said. “It saves money, time, resources, and a lot of girls’ mental health to prevent it from happening in the first place rather than deal with it after the fact.”
“If I plant that seed, if it’s in the John School…or whatever other program, if that seed takes and that person knows they don’t have to do it anymore, then I know I’ve worked well with my life. That’s all I pray for on a daily basis.” – Hardy