KSBY Investigates: Modern slavery on the Central Coast - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

KSBY Investigates: Modern slavery on the Central Coast

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California ranks as one of the top four states in the nation as a prime spot for human trafficking and the Central Coast is labeled as the natural passageway between our major cities to the north and south, according to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office.

It is an industry taking in $32 billion a year around the globe, but nearly three-quarters of the victims are American according to the California State Attorney General. Almost all but two percent are young women and girls stripped of their freedom and too intimidated to even ask for help.

"This is a human being who is being violently assaulted, who is being harmed, who is being hurt, who is being traded like a commodity,” says Carissa Phelps, a survivor of human trafficking and founder of Runaway Girl, Inc.   

Phelps, who was trafficked in Fresno as 12-year old, is now a San Luis Obispo resident and one of the few who shares a survivor's story.

“I don't need to go back there and relive it on a regular basis. I couldn't. I couldn't function everyday if I did,” says Phelps.

As told in her book, "Runaway Girl," as a young child, Phelps was able to escape the life of sexual exploitation, but almost three decades later, it is a cycle that continues on the Central Coast.

“It is a destination and so because of the high traffic of tourism though our area, there is also this demand, unfortunately, for the sex industry,” explains San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow. 

Since 2013, ten different cases of human trafficking have been working their way through the justice system locally. Fifteen people are charged with human trafficking so far, and six men and one woman have been found guilty. The others are pending or currently on trial. 

Following in line with the California's State Attorney General's Office, both San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Offices are fighting back. However, they find even with a “task force” it is not so simple.

“The biggest challenge really is spotting it, finding it. We have people who are ready to go and investigate it and can do it, but we need that initial tip,” says Dow. 

A tip from a concerned friend of a Los Osos victim is what led Dan Dow's team to prosecute both Oscar Higueros and Richard Brooks. Both men were found guilty of human trafficking. 

As the industry becomes more sophisticated and more organized every single day, officials believe there are now tools in place for victims to come forward safely. 

“A lot of victims are in a situation where they are not able to get out and ask for help. They don't believe that anyone will believe them or help them, but we are hoping that victims will see the messages that we are putting out there and they realize that there are people there working hard to help them, should they be able to reach out and ask for help,” explains Dow.

It is a message of hope and a better life. A life Carissa Phelps now has for herself and she believes it is a future other victims can have, too. 

“As bad as the events have gotten, as horrible as they've been, you can be in the opposite direction just as good and just as amazing and just as extraordinary and have a wonderful and full life,” says Phelps.

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office worked with a local lawmaker to change state law. Dow wants those convicted of solicitation or prostitution, with the knowledge the victim was a minor or part of human trafficking, to register as a sex offender  That bill did not pass out of committee but it may be reintroduced again next year.   

There are many local organizations waiting to help victims who come forward:
San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office
Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office
Polaris Project
Runaway Girl, Inc.
RISE Project (Resiliency Interventions for Sexual Exploitation)


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