Human trafficking happens here – be aware
Dr. Katherine Hargitt was a very young girl living in Italy when she became familiar with the story of “The Little Match Girl” – a shoeless young girl out in the frigid cold at night trying to sell matches, afraid to go home without a sale because her father will beat her. Her body was found the next day.
This heartbreaking story began Hargitt’s interest in neglected children, abuse and exploitation, issues that helped form her career as a teacher and eventually as a clinical psychologist. She now works out of her office in Glen Ellen, providing psychotherapy for children, adolescents and adults, and consulting and conducting research on the recovery and reintegration of child survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking.
Hargitt’s research has taken her to some of the grimmest corners of the world to study the commercial sex trafficking of children, including slums and refugee camps in the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and Nepal.
She has also provided expertise to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography.
After returning from some of her travels, Hargitt said she realized, “how little awareness in the United states there was of these issues.”
She, along with many others across the country, have been instrumental in placing sex trafficking and human slavery on the radar of health and education professionals, law enforcement, social service organizations, and all levels of government.
In January of 2010, President Obama kicked off an annual period for raising awareness of human trafficking, declaring each January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Month, which is occurring in Sonoma County right now.
Trafficking targets vulnerable members of society, including women and children, who are forced, defrauded or coerced into labor (sweatshops, farms, domestic service) or into sexual servitude.
The California Attorney General’s office notes that human trafficking is the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprise, an estimated $32 billion-a-year global industry. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that between 14,000 and 17,500 victims of human trafficking are brought into the United States each year.
Victims of this sexual slavery often come from abusive families, and are moved around to different trafficking rings by pimps, who are sometimes family members or family friends. Pimps also target young runaways – it is estimated that 90 percent of these boys and girls are approached by traffickers within 24 hours of running away.
Human trafficking is often an underreported crime, since victims commonly live in fear and are hesitant, or unable, to contact law enforcement.
Sonoma County is not immune to this modern form of slavery.
Recently, in December, a 24-year old man was sentenced to five years in state prison for felony human trafficking of two minors.
Last June, a Rohnert Park man went to prison for pimping two 17-year-olds.
Also in 2016, a man and two women from the East Bay were arrested on suspicion of trafficking minors in Rohnert Park. And four Sonoma County men were arrested on felony charges in October in an undercover operation for soliciting sex with children under 14.
To address the many issues surrounding human trafficking close to home, the Sonoma County Human Trafficking Task Force was formed, a multidisciplinary team comprised of members from law enforcement, the District Attorney’s Office and community-based service organizations.
There are nine other similar task forces throughout the state.
Sonoma County’s task force has focused on such activities as community education, engagement, and collaboration; law enforcement training, intelligence sharing and coordination; innovative charging of cases and vigorous prosecution; and continued outreach to legislators and community decision-makers.
Glen Ellen’s Hargitt was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Sonoma County’s task force, which she says is now at the forefront of such efforts, along with the task force in Alameda County.
Since 2011, 161 human trafficking and prostitution cases have been filed by the District Attorney’s office. There has been an increase in felony cases involving traffickers, from 3.6 filed a year prior to 2012, to a rate of 9 cases per year from 2012-2014.
While justice issues are important in trafficking cases, victims need coordinated and accessible support in order to escape and recover from the associated physical, mental, and spiritual trauma.
“Every case is different, there’s not a simple formula,” said Hargitt.
Events in Sonoma County to support Human Trafficking Awareness Month have been going on this January, with some still to come.
The City of Sonoma will proclaim January as “Human Trafficking Awareness Month” at their meeting on Monday, Jan. 23, 6 p.m. in the Community Meeting Room, 177 1st St. West, Sonoma. Hargitt will be there, accepting the proclamation on behalf of the Sonoma County Human Trafficking Task Force.
The Human Trafficking Task Force is hosting a screening and panel discussion of the documentary film The Long Night on Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 6:30 p.m. at the Finley Center, 2060 W. College Ave., Santa Rosa. For more information go to allevents.in/santa%20rosa/film-screening-the-long-night/223396874783082.
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