Stanford, June 15 (IPS) – Arien Pauls-Garcia’s journey to working with at-risk youth in California was a long and perilous one, beginning at age 19 when she found herself being sold and exploited by traffickers.
Now she is a program manager and victim advocate for at-risk minors with the Central Valley Justice Coalition in Fresno, California. She works with young people who are at risk of being sexually exploited.
It took Pauls-Garcia time, courage and strength to get this far.
Pauls-Garcia grew up in poverty in Humboldt County, California. As she went through difficult family situations, such as having several stepfathers and her mother who had numerous mental health issues, she used MySpace, a social networking platform, to talk to someone who would understand her.
She met a man who turned out to be a “Romeo pimp,” a commonly used term to define traffickers who trick young girls or boys into believing they were loved. Romeo then sold her to another man she spent four years with.
Pauls-Garcia went through traumatic experiences: she was beaten, raped, branded and forced to have an abortion by her traffickers.
“I have experienced terrible things that a person should never experience. I have not fled or left because of the shame, guilt and shame. I believed that it was my choice to be in that situation and that I would no longer be accepted in society,” Pauls-Garcia reflected.
When Pauls-Garcia escaped her trafficker, she tried to figure out how to become a person and not a sales object.
“I really wanted to contribute to society and set my goals. I spent a year and a half trying to find a job,” explains Pauls-Garcia. She was unable to find work because she had a criminal record with charges of solicitation and trespassing.
However, through determination, she slowly built her life. This year marks her 10th anniversary of freedom. She became one of the faces of the AB-262 bill. This new legislation allows survivors of human trafficking to apply for job vacancy relief by providing clear and convincing evidence that arrests and convictions are the direct result of human trafficking.
Pauls-Garcia is also working to clear her record. She will graduate with her Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies from Grand Canyon University and plans to apply for law school.
As she continues to build her life, Pauls-Garcia wants the victims of trafficking to know that the journey will be difficult.
“It won’t always be sunshine and daisies. But the work you put into yourself will be worth it in the end. If you mess up, that’s okay. You never have to go back to that life; there will always be a solution to our problem. Just keep fighting for it and it will happen,” said Pauls-Garcia with strong conviction.
California received the highest number of substantive signals related to human trafficking of all 50 states in 2020.
National Human Trafficking Hotline connects victims and survivors with services and support groups.
In the 2019 National Human Trafficking Hotline California data report, 3,184 phone calls, 935 text messages, 208 emails and 88 web chats were sent to the line. In 2020, however, the signals have increased, with more than 113 calls, 187 texts, and 20 web chats made in 2020 than in 2019. The number of human trafficking cases continues to rise in California.
Marty Parker, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), noted an increase in human trafficking cases since the pandemic.
“I can imagine there may have been people who lost their jobs because of COVID-19. And therefore were desperate, leaving them either into prostitution on their own or more vulnerable to being trafficked into prostitution,” Parker said, reflecting on the impact of the pandemic on human trafficking.
Parker handles child exploitation and human trafficking cases. Her team is based in Oakland, California, and they proactively work with local law enforcement. Her work encompasses many tasks, such as recovering trafficking victims, arresting suspected pimps and traffickers, and liaising with law enforcement agencies.
“What we see every day is that people who are trafficked are US citizens, normal people, your friends, children, neighbors. This is everyone’s problem. This is a domestic problem. It affects every town and every town,” Parker said.
In 2013, Parker’s team successfully sued a popular escort website called MyRedBook. The website contained advertisements for girls and pornography.
“If we have a girl who needs justice, we’ll go after the bad guy. If there’s a missing child, we’re going to find them,” Parker said.
Parker works on human trafficking cases to give a voice and justice to survivors. Many of them were taken from their families and their youth was taken away. Parker said housing was a big problem as survivors tried to get their lives back. Because there are a limited number of temporary and domestic violence shelters, there are sometimes no empty beds.
SF SOL (Safety, Opportunity, Lifetime Relationships) Collaborative aims to create a continuum of care for young people who are experiencing or at risk of commercial sexual exploitation. They have served more than 300 youths to date. The California Department of Social Services funds them. Their collaborative partners include the City and County of San Francisco, Department on the Status of Women, Freedom Forward, WestCoast Children’s Clinic, Family Builders by Adoption, and Huckleberry Youth Programs.
Nazneen Rydhan-Foster, SF SOL Program Manager, oversees budget, project management and anti-trafficking initiatives. One of their successful projects is the collaboration with the Helping Young People Elevate (HYPE) Center.
The HYPE Center is aimed at young people experiencing homelessness, human trafficking and systematic oppression.
“The great thing about this center is that it was created by young people and for young people. We really hope this center lives on, exists and serves the youth in San Francisco.”
The center was going through tough times as they had to close their center when COVID-19 hit. However, they opened slowly.
Breaking the Chains, a nonprofit in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley, started with a safe house for adult female survivors. They house six survivors who spend nine months to two years in the facility. On a daily basis, they now serve an average of 90 to 100 customers. Since 2015, Breaking the Chains has provided services to more than 800 clients. Its mission is to provide hope, healing and restoration to all lives affected by human trafficking.
Tiffany Apodaca, co-founder of Breaking the Chains, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and abandonment, also noted an increase in human trafficking cases since the pandemic.
“It has increased considerably. The simple fact is what we did: we put everyone at home on electronic devices, and there weren’t many eyes on people. If trafficking was taking place within the household, there were no teachers or anyone to monitor children to see if there was abuse,” Apodaca explained how and why human trafficking worsened during COVID-19.
Breaking the Chains will launch its expanded Juvenile Justice Program on July 1, 2022. They will begin with an addition of 150 minors who are either commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC) or at-risk youth.
This article is part of a series of articles from around the world on human trafficking. IPS coverage is supported by the Airways Aviation Group. The Global Sustainability Network (GSN) is committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal No. 8, with a special emphasis on Goal 8.7, which “take immediate and effective action to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking, and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and end child labor in all its forms by 2025′. The origin of the GSN stems from the efforts of the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders, signed on December 2, 2014. Religious leaders of different religions came together to work together “to defend the dignity and freedom of human beings from the extreme forms of the globalization of indifference, such as exploitation, forced labour, prostitution, human trafficking”.
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