Volunteers who aid human trafficking victims had to get creative with their assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, according to an annual report released Tuesday.
For instance, a Salvation Army support group for victims of foreign countries is a “safe place” for them to “share their stories and feelings or quietly listen to others if they don’t feel ready to share,” according to the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force report.
That support group is often the “only space” where they can express their feelings, the group said.
However, the pandemic and lockdown restrictions shut it down for a time. Volunteers figured out how to revive the group by providing “laptops with camera access so that participants could transition into attending the support group in a virtual setting,” according to the report.
A “dinner club,” which has been among a favorite meeting site for victims was similarly curtailed during the pandemic.
“The volunteers were up for the challenge,” according to the report. “Since they were no longer able to physically come together to cook the meals, the volunteers explored the world of food-delivery apps.”
The volunteers also would prepare meals and deliver them to the victims before setting up a Zoom support group meeting, according to the report. Those virtual dinner meetings included activities such as “painting pumpkins, building gingerbread houses” and games of bingo, according to the report.
The task force aided 357 victims of sex and labor trafficking, according to the report. That was a “slight decrease” from 415 in the 2018-19 report that task force members say could be owed to how the pandemic handicapped investigators.
Of those victims in the 2019-20 report, 317 were sex-trafficking victims. Of all the 357 victims who received local assistance, 330 were female and 27 were male and 101 were children.
During the pandemic, calls for assistance to the National Human Trafficking Hotline increased, the task force reported.
Orange County prosecutors have filed charges 94% of the time over the last 10 years and of the cases that went to trial 95% resulted in guilty verdicts, according to the task force.
The report also looks back on a decade since Waymakers, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing aid to those who have been victimized by tragedy, teamed up with the Anaheim Police Department to reorient law enforcement’s approach to the problem of prostitution. The task force now includes many other Orange County law enforcement agencies.
At a news conference to release the report, Anaheim Police Department Chief Jorge Cisneros said “the change in mindset was neither quick nor easy… But we realized a true understanding needed to occur before any change could take place.”
Since 2014, underage prostitutes have not been arrested, Cisneros said, adding the children are now considered victims of exploitation.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer recalled how 30 years ago when he was a new prosecutor how prostitutes would be brought into court and placed in a holding tank.
“Every week, prostitutes would be brought in,” Spitzer said. “We used to put them in jail for 90 days… We were caught up with putting people in the… system, thinking it would change the behavior.”
Spitzer said the real problem is “not just the people who supply the sex workers. It’s the consumers and the people who control them are at the heart of how you get your arms around what we call our own local pandemic.”
Orange County is an attractive place for pimps to do their job because the area is “blessed” with substantial tourism and convention business, Spitzer said.
“It’s an international center where people want to come to vacation or for conventions or to recreate,” Spitzer said. “It also brings in those who want to exploit sex workers.”
Spitzer touted how his office pursued and won an appeal of a case involving an undercover investigator that has set a valuable legal precedent that is helpful to law enforcement in cracking down on human trafficking.
Spitzer also complained about some Orange County Superior Court judges who he said have taken it easy on some pimps.
“There have been members of the bench, who just don’t get it,” Spitzer said, adding that some judges have also granted lenient plea deals in hate crime cases as well.
“It is because of the good work of this task force and the education of the public and education of jurors and judges and all those in the criminal justice system that we get better verdicts and better back up prosecutors by the bench,” Spitzer said.
“It is because of this intensive, laborious, but really good work that it pays off in terms of a safer community.”