An easy place to do business: sex trafficking in Santa Barbara

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Researcher Kyli Larson. Photo: Gina Potthoff/Noozhawk

CaptureA report released to the public this week sheds light on a disturbing trade in Santa Barbara County: domestic sex trafficking.

Researcher Kyli Larson. Photo: Gina Potthoff/Noozhawk

According to study, 45 separate child survivors were confirmed between 2012 and 2014 (43 of which were living in the county), along with 80 suspected child survivors and 461 children considered “highly vulnerable” to the trade.

To compile the report, funded by the Santa Barbara Foundation, researchers Kary O’Brien and Kyli Larson were brought in by the District Attorney’s office to collect information from law enforcement, social services and child welfare providers.

KCRW’s Larry Perel sat down with O’Brien and Larson to make sense of these numbers.

O’Brien says Santa Barbara is considered to be an easy place for traffickers to conduct business. It’s an area of wealth, where people can pay for such services. It sits between Los Angeles and San Francisco. And, it attracts certain customers such as convention-goers and migrant workers.

Although the 22 participants interviewed provided O’Brien and Larson with specific cases dealing with children being sex trafficked, none of them reported any formal agency protocol when addressing the crime, or the victims.

“[Agencies] need to make it a priority,” says O’Brien. “There needs to be designated staff devoted to this issue.”

O’Brien says there are many ways a child can be sex trafficked. One way, which O’Brien studied extensively while compiling this report, is through websites like Backpage.com, a classified advertising website which includes categories like “escort” and “domination and fetish.”

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From left, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley, Chief Deputy District Attorney Mag Nicola and Victim-Witness Assistance Program director Megan Rheinschild are part of the Human Trafficking Task Force. Photo: Lara Cooper/Noozhawk

During her two-week study of the website in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria, a total of 675 ads were placed, averaging to almost 50 a day.

“Keep in mind,” she said,” each ad probably leads to 5 to 10 ‘dates’ a day.”

Other avenues for trafficking include family and gangs.

So what happens now, and how do we gain traction on a problem lining the underbelly of the county? Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley has been a key factor in the equation, and helped form the Human Trafficking Task Force last year.

She’s known for sounding the alarm on sex trafficking here in Santa Barbara, and spoke with KCRW’s Larry Perel.

“I agree, there is a lack of protocol, and it’s incumbent upon the District Attorney’s office to take a lead in that,” says Dudley.

Apart from the needs assessment report, steps are underway. Santa Maria’s Chief Deputy District Attorney Mag Nicola is developing such a protocol, and the D.A.’s office applied for a $1.5 million federal grant that would go toward finding services for victims and thoroughly investigating trafficking cases.

Cases, like the ones O’Brien alluded to when she said police officials are aware of sex trafficking occurring in specific spots around Santa Barbara County (the strip of State St. between Gelson’s Market and Whole Foods, for example).

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Brannon Pitcher, who was sentenced in March 2015 for trafficking a 16-year-old girl. Photo: Lara Cooper/Noozhawk

When asked about the barrier between police knowing of illicit activity and acting upon it, Dudley said, “there’s no barrier except resources.”

If the grant is won, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown assured D.A. Dudley that there will a full time position dedicated to investigating such cases.

Some moves have been made. The county conducted its first human trafficking trial this year, which found Brannon Lawrence Pitcher guilty of two counts of human trafficking of a minor, a girl who was 16 at the time.

And, Larson has begun coordinating volunteer groups who reach out to hotel and motel workers throughout the county, educating them about how to identify children at risk of trafficking and encouraging them to report any activity to law enforcement.

It’s a step in the right direction, agreed O’Brien, Larson and Dudley.

“It sheds light on this issue,” said O’Brien, “It sends a serious message that Santa Barbara County is going to act.”