January is the month devoted to creating awareness of the ever-present societal issue of Human Trafficking. US Homeland Security defines the term as a “modern-day slavery that involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”

Although this form of abuse has been around for a very long time, there is still a substantial lack of understanding in our Southern California population. A disbelief that our own kids would be held captive in this lifestyle, that it would be affecting even the most lucrative of neighborhoods in our area.  This month is devoted to shedding light on a problem daily overlooked, with the hope of bringing the affected victims into freedom and an end to this troublesome epidemic.

An interview was conducted this year with Officer Andrew Gonzalez of the Los Angeles Police Department and Operations South Bureau Human Trafficking Task Force team, to help us wrap our heads around this abrasive issue often swept under our societal rug, and how to help. This decorated former Marine-gone-policeman, spent 13 years in South LA, working up to his role as Senior Gang Investigator before being asked to collaborate on a special joint task force between the FBI and LAPD to address the growing trouble that is Human Trafficking. 

Gonzalez explains that he, like so many of us, had no idea what being trapped in this life was like, and referred to what he began to witness as a “degree of evil he had never seen before”.  However, through working day to day on the streets, gathering information and meeting actual victims of the horrendous culture, he began to understand the ins and outs of the functions of this unfortunately lucrative business, and how to make efforts to stop it from continuing.

The force developed a formula that demonstrates just how kids, teens and adults get wrapped into this way of life that would assist them in formulating tactics to stop it from happening.  Desire, Opportunity, and Ability, shortened as DOA is now used in this equation: D+O+A= Victim.

Desire is something no one can control for the suspect or trafficker; it’s their enate drive to coerce another human to work for him or her. Ability is the second piece in the puzzle that can’t be controlled, for it’s the trafficker’s sources or circumstances that allow them to usher a victim into the life.  However, the one factor that can be influenced by parents, officers, advocates, etc. is opportunity. Taking away the chance for a suspect to engulf a potential victim into their domain is crucial, and is the only factor that allows the equation to remain incomplete, and a number of people protected.

Unfortunately, the completion of this equation is occurring every day in our very County, in our very neighborhoods, due to our tendencies to turn a blind eye to the apparent signs of trafficking.  Often times these succumbed kids, teens and adults can be identified on the streets, if only we would care to look.  We, as citizens living next door to these horrifying realities, are encouraged to call into our local police departments when we see persons that are alone, on the streets, appearing out of sorts--to use common sense to spot potential victims of this abuse and do our part in helping it come to an end, rather than avoiding its troubling sights.

Gonzalez disassembles another issue holding our community back from ending this culture of indecency. An assumption is commonly made that these kids enter the life because they’re looking for money, when the sad truth is what they seek is love.  The task force has found the majority of victims are from broken families and the foster system, raised without a strong sense of home or acceptance. It’s with a skewed view of love that they so easily get lured into the life that the trafficker is offering, usually a glamorous lifestyle together, an idealistic lifestyle that gets stripped from them as soon as they’re brainwashed. 

Many of these victims are branded, literally tattooed, with the name of their Pimp to signify their life is no longer their own, they now belong to him or her and work to sell their bodies for the chance to be treated “well” by their owner. When their performance isn’t up to par or the expected quota isn’t met, Gonzalez explains that “the victims go without meals or are pumped full of methamphetamine or cocaine” to be able to stay up for ungodly amounts of time and continue to work. No, no this is hardly about the money, but rather about gaining the acceptance and affection they’ve longed for.

This is what makes rescuing victims from this life so difficult.  Officer Gonzalez explains that we must understand the brain of the victims--how they tick, how they see themselves--if we hope to gain any traction in escorting them into a healthier lifestyle.  The task force has benefitted greatly from partnering with scholars of the brain and trained professionals in the mental health field to learn what the survivors need in order to build their self-worth from the ground up.  Gonzalez exclaimed that what these victims need is “more people who understand how the brain works, to collaborate with police officers and strategize ways for these kids to develop new patterns of thought and clarity.”

So today, with the first month of 2017 coming to a close, we reflect on what taunting information we long to overlook, but can no longer afford to.  We say enough of the torture occurring within our own cities and make strides to do our part in disabling the DOA equation from being completed.  Love the ones in your life that might be flying under the radar of society and choose to see what devastating truths being displayed daily on the street besides us.

If you know of anyone in the field of mental health who would be willing to volunteer in this way, or are interested in becoming an advocate or volunteer in the area of Human Trafficking in Orange County, email Lquines@eastside.com for more info.