Mediaplanet: Which members of the population are most at risk for human trafficking?

Yasmin Vafa: When children’s home life isn’t stable or they experience some kind of trauma, they are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation. We’re talking largely about foster youth, runaway and homeless youth, children with histories of sexual or physical abuse and immigrant youth.

Kay Buck: During our 18 years, we learned that anyone could be at-risk: from individuals marginalized due to gender, ethnicity, immigration or socio-economic status, to people with university degrees. Victims range from voluntary migrants seeking to flee civil unrest and improve their lives working here in L.A to individuals facing gender-based discrimination to U.S. born children exploited in the commercial sex industry.

MP: What are the immediate and long-term needs of trafficking victims and survivors?

YV: Survivors require a wide range of care. Immediate needs include medical services, legal assistance and safe and welcoming housing. Long-term needs include therapy, family counseling, childcare, affordable housing, education, vocational training, substance abuse treatment, legal services and more.

"It’s important to remember that buyers are not just found in the sex industry, but that people are bought and sold for forced labor."

KB: Basic physiological needs, such as food, shelter and clothing are crucial. Long-term needs include education, job training, self-sufficiency and in some cases family reunification. Medical care is an ongoing need and mental health treatment is critical, as it can be a major reason why a survivor cannot stabilize beyond immediate needs.

MP: In what ways do traffickers obtain their victims?

YV: Traffickers often use manipulation tactics to lure victims into a life of exploitation, but we have also seen traffickers use aggressive tactics like kidnapping. You don’t necessarily need a trafficker to be trafficked. Some youth are exploited by adults who provide them basic necessities like food in exchange for sex.

KB: Victims can be trafficked through job brokers, fake employment agencies, social media or by word of mouth. Some are sold into slavery by their families or abducted. Over the last two years at CAST, nearly 70 percent of our clients were trafficked by someone they knew or trusted.

MP: What portions of the population are participating as the johns, or buyers?

YV: That’s often difficult to know because it relies on buyers admitting they sexually assaulted an underage girl or boy. What we do know is that thousands of children are bought and sold for sex in this country. Without the demand from buyers, there would be no child sex trade.

KB: Just as victims of human trafficking come from different backgrounds, the buyers are also from various walks of life. They can be men or women. It’s important to remember that buyers are not just found in the sex industry, but that people are bought and sold for forced labor.

MP: How are the buyers handled by law enforcement in these situations?

YV: Buyers are rarely charged even when they solicit sex from minors. If any charges are applied, it’s often misdemeanor solicitation for what in any other case would constitute felony charges like statutory rape or child endangerment. Law enforcement typically focuses on traffickers and, too often, prosecutes child victims for prostitution.

"The fact is there’s no such thing as a child prostitute, because children cannot consent."

KB: Recently, law enforcement has sought harsher penalties on buyers, including increased fines and felonies for commercial sex with a minor. Some locales arrest buyers. But, this requires careful examination to ensure that resources are also directed towards prosecuting traffickers, who must be held accountable.

MP: What actions can the public take to combat trafficking?

YV: People often refer to child sex trafficking as “child prostitution” and view victims as criminals. The fact is there’s no such thing as a child prostitute, because children cannot consent. We need the public to urge media and law enforcement to recognize this issue for what it is: child rape. 

KB: Human trafficking is an under reported human rights violation and crime. Check out our page to learn more, volunteer, support legislative action and invest in the ongoing needs of survivors. You can also anonymously report suspicious activity to 1-888-539-2373; all tips are passed to the Regional Task Force operated by CAST and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.