An officer talks with a sex trafficking victim. Courtesy FBI

With January’s Human Trafficking Awareness Month behind us, we are reminded of how much work we still have left to do to put an end to commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, where people are sold as property. Shockingly, the average age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation is 16 years old, with our children being trafficked right here in San Diego County — in many of our own neighborhoods.

When you think of human trafficking, you may imagine it happening far away, but San Diego is actually one of our country’s hotspots. According to the FBI, San Diego is ranked as one of the 13 worst regions in the United States for human trafficking, with 3,000 to 8,000 victims trafficked each year. The exact number is unknown.

After drug trafficking, it is San Diego’s largest underground economy at an estimated $810 million annually.

Most victims of trafficking are not kidnapped during broad daylight and locked away. That still happens, but it is rare. Instead, human trafficking is a crime that is perpetuated against some of the most vulnerable members of our society through deception, coercion and force.

Perpetrators often include family members, peers, boyfriends and organized criminals and gangs. Physical and psychological abuse prevents victims from seeking help or escaping, with threats against their own or their family members’ lives common.

All youth are at risk for human trafficking, but some are at higher risk than others. Those who have previously experienced abuse and neglect are most vulnerable, including youth experiencing homelessness and those in foster care, children who run away from home, children who are part of our LGBTQ+ community and children who struggle with their mental health.

That is why prevention and early intervention is crucial. If we support our youth before they run away from home, before they are incarcerated and before they become homeless, we can reduce their risk. By reducing factors that lead to a higher risk of trafficking, we can change the trajectory of their lives before they are robbed of their dignity, dreams and basic human rights.

At San Diego Youth Services we have helped thousands of children and young adults who are at risk for trafficking, as well as those who have already been trafficked. Our goal is for the youth we serve to become emotionally and financially self-reliant, so that they are able to overcome the trauma they have experienced, heal and lead productive and healthy lives.

Our staff members work directly with survivors to get them back on their feet, often through around-the-clock care, by providing them with resources, including shelter and food, so that they are able to leave their old lives behind. We provide mental health services, educational support, employment opportunities and support to their families. Without intensive services and support, the chances of leaving human trafficking are slim.

To end this invisible epidemic of human trafficking, we need to make sure we fund the resources necessary to support survivors as they leave their old lives behind. Even better, we need to continue to invest in prevention and early intervention programs for our most vulnerable children, so that we are able to support them before they are lured into a life of sexual exploitation.

We also need to continue to collectively stand against human trafficking, bring the perpetrators to justice and support victims. We have a long road ahead of us, but together we can end human trafficking. Our children depend on it.

Walter Philips is the chief executive officer of San Diego Youth Services a nonprofit that the community’s most vulnerable youth, including foster children and those experiencing homelessness, family conflict, abuse and neglect, mental health struggles and substance abuse.

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