About a year ago I was gearing up to turn in this assignment during my last quarter at UCSB. Taking a journalism class was a fun way to end my time at UCSB. I like to write, and it was a great experience to be pushed to write in a way I had never done before. Below is my final long feature. Enjoy.
If you asked Bob Ryan two years ago what he would be doing today, his first response would not have been opening a treatment center for juvenile victims of human trafficking.
Ryan earned his masters degree in Cross Cultural Studies with an emphasis in ministering to children-at-risk from Fuller Seminary after graduating from UC Santa Barbara. For over a decade, he and his wife Michelle worked as directors of a local organization that hosted annual summer camps for foster care children located in Santa Barbara County.
They recently began to transition out of that role and search for other ways to care for exploited children. In the process, they were exposed to the problem of domestically trafficked children—even in their hometown of Santa Barbara.
With their background in running camps for disadvantaged children, the Ryans have committed themselves to bringing the first residential treatment center for minor victims of sex trafficking to Santa Barbara County.
“Santa Barbara is a wonderful community, very well-resourced in a lot of different ways, and has a huge heart. I thought, ‘is there any way we can get [a treatment center] going here?’,” Ryan explained.
The center, Hope Refuge, will address the complex needs of minor victims, ranging from the initial trauma care of those just rescued to a long-term residency program intended to rehabilitate the minors into normal life over the period of one year.
The Ryans are joining a disproportionately small network of treatment centers for minor victims of sex trafficking spread throughout the United States. Sex trafficking of minors has evolved into a major domestic issue, and the Department of Justice estimates that 300,000 children are at risk for commercial sex exploitation each year.
According to a study released by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority in 2013, twenty-eight states in the U.S. have no treatment centers for victims of sex trafficking, nor do they have plans to open them. In the remaining twenty-two states, there are a total of 37 operational centers.
The U.S. Trafficking of Victims Protection Act classifies sex trafficking as “a commercial sex act that is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”
Unfortunately for minor victims in the United States, the number of beds available in existing treatment centers can only serve about .25% of their population.
Even with more awareness in recent years, experts say that misconceptions about sex trafficking have delayed the creation of adequate treatment centers for victims, who suffer from serious physical and psychological problems that need specialized attention.
According to District Attorney Joyce Dudley, Santa Barbara County has become a major destination for trafficked minors due to its location between San Francisco and Los Angeles. She explained that in recent years they have seen an increase in juvenile sex trafficking victims in the county.
“When we began to pick up these juveniles, we began to realize that in fact they were being trafficked,” Dudley said.
Unlike a traditional house brothel, she explained that traffickers are using websites as a medium to pimp the young victims as they are transported around the state.
Increasingly, the Internet has become a preferred method of selling sex. BackPage.com, an online classifieds website, is reported to be making over 20 million in revenue from sexual services advertisements.
In a study published by Arizona State University, a group of experts monitored BackPage.com escort services listings and Craigslist.com casual encounter listings for one week in 2013.
They identified potential sex trafficking victims in 166 ads, which made up 21 percent of the total number of sex/prostitution ads they surveyed. Twenty-nine percent of those 166 potential trafficking victim ads were identified as potential minors.
The study found that Craigslist.com quickly removed solicitations for sex posted in casual encounters. However, sex solicitations remained on BackPage.com, and the site did not flag ads of potential minors.
Due to mounting pressure from the public, Craigslist.com shut down their escort services section in 2009 and have cooperated with authorities in fighting human trafficking on their site. But BackPage.com has yet to change their website policy.
Minors that end up on sites like BackPage.com are targeted because of their vulnerability. Experts have found that 70 percent of the United State’s 1.6 million runaway or throwaway minor population are at risk for sexual exploitation, which includes the risk of being trafficked.
Researchers at the University of Houston have found runaway and throwaway minors often have a background in the foster care system, and have by choice or force become homeless.
Without access to basic resources, they are more likely to engage in survival sex or drug dealing to purchase meals and clothing. Researchers say survival sex places children at a very high risk to be trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation.
According to Kelsi Yeakel from Saving Innocence in Los Angeles, an organization that works as legal advocates of minor sex trafficking victims, it is estimated that 80 percent of minor victims of sex trafficking have interacted with state services.
Their team of seven currently has fifty active cases in Los Angeles County. They serve the legal needs of the victims for two years, and prefer to send victims to a rehabilitation center located in Iowa because of the lack of quality treatment centers in California.
Yeakel said it is difficult to measure success in a position like hers, where many times victims will turn back to exploitative situations even after finding refuge in state systems created to help them.
Still, she believes Saving Innocence has succeeded in navigating the difficult relationship between at-risk children and state services.
“For the first time these kids feel like they are loved and not just a number in the system, even though they still are in the system,” she explained.
However, researches have found that children who are in the protection of the state are more likely than other children to fall victim to sex trafficking, particularly those who are placed in group homes.
According to Helen Ernst, who volunteered her time as a court advocate for a foster child in Santa Barbara, the often long, sometimes cross-border distance between a child’s origin and the group home makes them vulnerable.
“What I learned is that there are no group homes in Santa Barbara as a city. Many of the children that are taken out of homes in Santa Barbara have to be sent to communities outside of Santa Barbara.
“Not only are they in a crisis; they are also breaking off contact with anyone they ever knew,” Ernst said.
Katrina Vogt from Santa Barbara County Child Welfare Services (CWS) confirmed these statements, and explained that the most difficult and traumatized children are often the ones placed in group homes.
She said that children in Santa Barbara County are placed statewide, the nearest in Oxnard, but sometimes as far away as Belmont—305 miles from Santa Barbara.
With his background in working with foster children, Ryan understands how many end up in group homes or run away from CWS, leaving them exposed to the advances of pimps and traffickers.
“One of the reasons foster placements and foster adoption fails is because the parents don’t have enough resources to handle the level of need that these children have,” he said.
Further, experts say foster care agencies are not equipped to monitor the signs of human trafficking.
Elizabeth Arroyo, from foster care agency Family Care Network, explained that the Department of Social Services in San Luis Obispo County intends to host a Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children training for foster care agencies and families.
But nothing of that nature has been planned in Santa Barbara County.
Still, when done correctly, foster care remains an important way of preventing trafficking, according to Megan Rhineschild, the head of Santa Barbara’s Human Trafficking Task Force and Director of the Victims Witness Assistance.
“One of the things that is sometimes asked is ‘how we can make a difference?’…and I think that what comes to mind for me is foster care.
“There is such a tremendous need for good foster families. Many of the children and the minors we see being susceptible to sex trafficking in particular are young kids, around the entry age of 12 or 13 years old, who are very difficult to place in foster care,” she said.
Christianne Taylor, a twenty-something resident of Santa Barbara, is currently in the training process to become a foster parent. She references the connection of foster care to the sex trafficking of minors as a motivating factor in her decision.
“I made the decision to take in a little person, and I assumed maybe [from] overseas. But then in an interview at the District Attorney’s office I found out there are 600 kids in Santa Barbara County alone who didn’t have homes and most of the kids they are seeing on the streets being trafficked [for sex] are directly picked up from group homes. To me, that’s abhorrent,” she said.
These prevention efforts come too late for the sex trafficking victims that have already been picked up by authorities in Santa Barbara County.
The only placement available for victims is Santa Barbara’s Juvenile Hall, where there are not adequate services addressing their particular trauma.
“We found out two months ago that there are girls in our juvenile hall that have been positively identified as trafficking victims,” Ryan remarked. He explained while in the hall, trafficked victims are known to recruit for their pimps among the rest of the female population.
For Ryan, these circumstances highlight the many reasons Santa Barbara County needs a treatment center. He recounted how the Juvenile Justice Health Supervisor told him, “I need this [Hope Refuge], because I can’t put these girls just anywhere; they are dangerous to themselves and also others.
“We can’t keep them in juvenile hall, because that’s not the best place for them.“
The Ryans are still in the early stages of developing Hope Refuge, which is registered as a charitable, non-religious organization. Currently, they are negotiating a piece of land located in rural Santa Barbara they hope will serve their needs.
“Our vision is to create a community. We aren’t interested in renting a house in some neighborhood; that traditionally hasn’t worked for this population…we want to feel there is a community of care and a community of love surrounding the children,” Ryan said.
Before they can create this community, they must obtain extensive licensing from the state of California needed to care for exploited children and raise funds to finance the center.
In the meantime, Ryan is confident of the path he is taking, and believes he investing in the most impactful way to change the lives of minor victims. The overwhelming need for treatment centers is all the confirmation he needs.
“I don’t think the issue is going to be how we find these girls or where they are going to come from–it is how are we going to deal with the numbers of victims that there actually are?”