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Human trafficking in Kern County

The Unseen War

By Ellen KommelPublished 2 months ago 6 min read
Parents paint messages on car windshields for local march against human trafficking.

The term “human trafficking” sounds so foreign and distant to so many of us. It is glamorized in movies and on television shows, but surely it couldn’t happen in our own backyards. We tell ourselves it doesn’t exist because it is not in our peripheral and we sleep better for it, but it is invisible by design.

Evolution does not exclusively refer to positive change; criminals in all categories have been growing smarter and more well-equipped to survive as technology advances and the public becomes more distracted. The truth about human trafficking is that it is very prevalent and ever growing.

Bakersfield is what is known to law enforcement as a “hot spot”; it is stuck in a circuit through California and Nevada where most big cities along major freeways are naturally much more likely to see higher numbers of trafficking victims. These stops along the circuit make moving victims easier, and keeping them mobile is necessary to keep them disoriented and compliant.

Between the years of 2017 and 2019 in Kern County, the Bakersfield Department of Human Services worked with nearly 200 children who were victims of human trafficking. According to Dr. Angela Look at DHS, “social workers have gone out to investigate allegations of exploitation for nearly 300 children/ youth, though not all of those were identified as having been victims at the conclusion of the investigation.” But that just scratches the surface. These numbers only refer to the cases that have been reported and investigated—it doesn’t reflect the number of traffickers still running their businesses without being caught.

Despite the alarming prevalence of trafficking, there are just as many efforts being made against the issue. There are men and women all throughout the county that are taking the fight to these criminals and for the most part, they do so without recognition. Two of those forces for good in Kern County are Sergeant Nathan McCauley and Detective Brian West. Together, they make up just a fraction of the task force dedicated to helping victims and quell rampant criminal sexual exploitation.

According to Detective West, one of the most important things to remember as a civilian is that real human trafficking does not look like it does in the movies. “You have to get that image out of your head,” West explains. It’s not all abductions and kidnappings from happy family homes. Most human trafficking in Kern County, at least, is comprised of runaways and foster youth. There’s no way to accurately calculate how many missing persons are human trafficking cases because runaways and foster youth rarely get reported as missing. “It’s really tough to gauge the exact number of who could be involved.”

Recently, in the media, there has been a lot of speculation about a “ring” within the American elites, but in smaller areas like Bakersfield, the trafficking seen looks a lot less like an organized effort and a lot more like individuals exploiting the demand.

Both West and McCauley are in agreement that these efforts are important, but as long as the demand exists, so too will human trafficking. “These people are trafficking them because they’re making money off of this because someone is wanting these services and seeking out these services. What does it say about our society in general that if this is a constantly growing problem, there must be a constantly growing demand for it,” says McCauley.

But the demand still persists. With the controversial movie “Cuties” having premiered on Netflix in 2020, questions on where to draw the line flood the discussion boards. At what point does the widely accepted sexualization of children become less “empowering” and more detrimental to the fight against human trafficking? “A shift in our culture away from sexualizing our young girls and making it normal for males to see females as there for objectification is also needed. Many within the music and movie industry have perpetuated the problem of trafficking due to the messages that they express,” says Look.

But until a societal change takes place, the responsibility of keeping children safe falls on parents and caretakers. When to start having these discussions is entirely subjective; some kids can handle more intense topics of conversation at earlier ages, so it’s up to parental discretion, but they need to be held at some point. “The technology that’s available and the different ways that people communicate has absolutely changed in terms of what people have to be aware of,” McCauley states. But being proactive doesn’t mean running a draconian household. “It makes being a parent hard. . . you don’t run your household like a prison, but you’re going to have to have those difficult conversations.”

Kelsey Brackett is a Community Relations Specialist at Bakersfield Police Department working closely with crime prevention. She runs a youth outreach program in which middle school and high school aged kids are given real life information about the prevalence of and tips to recognize human trafficking, since they are the target age. Only recently has the state mandated that high school health classes at least brush over the topic with students, but it’s simply not enough. When asked about the importance of teaching kids about human trafficking, Brackett said it’s huge. “And not just for human trafficking, but internet safety and sexting in particular—parents and caretakers and even teachers are in the mindset that ignorance is bliss, but unfortunately that’s who these predators are targeting. Fires and earthquakes are scary, but schools hold drills to prepare kids,” she explains. Because the issue is so prevalent, kids are at a disadvantage if they aren’t taught about it.

But it’s not just up to parents and caretakers to teach their children about the issue because the casualties of human trafficking are often runaways and foster youth, who don’t always have the luxury of a caring role model to prepare them for these situations. “There are laws in place in group homes, but some are a little bit relaxed in the sense that there are young boys and young girls who show up for a hot meal, but they’re right back out the door and there’s nothing we can do to keep them safe,” says Brackett. The reason this group of youth are particularly susceptible can be explained by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Predators prey on children that are lacking in basic needs like a roof over their heads, consistent meals, or the feeling of being cared for, so they promise these things in return for obedience. They are “rewarded” with these necessities for bringing in money for traffickers, so in many cases, they don’t even identify as victims. It just looks like a job, so they don’t feel the need to fight back or run away. But time and time again, this group is completely overlooked when laws are written and amended regarding the safety of our children.

Bakersfield Police Department holds programs like Safe Escape, a seminar where children are able to learn simple techniques to help keep them safe. From basic ways to get out of someone’s grip or drawing attention to yourself in an instance of abduction, these things could only help in the fight against trafficking.

And it’s not just law enforcement taking the battle to traffickers. There are civilians who dedicate their lives to helping victims everywhere you look. Some are working to help rehabilitate after the life, offering life-changing counseling and opportunities for reintegration into society while others are putting their lives on the line to intervene when they come across it. According to Sergeant McCauley, it has to be a collective effort, otherwise we will never be able to get ahead of the issue. Some of the local organizations available to victims are The Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault, City Serve, and local support groups which have become more popular.

So the solution is relatively straight forward: eliminating the demand will eliminate the problem. As a consumer-driven society, it is up to every American to take responsibility for the current prevalence of human trafficking. What are you doing to stop it?

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