Turn off the red light
One woman’s mission to end sex trafficking in Ventura County
By Karen Castillo Farfán 03/07/2013
Story and photos by Karen Castillo Farfán
Josie lived in a group home until age 18, when she was forced to leave because she had reached the age of majority. Her friend introduced her to an older guy who promised to take care of her until she found her own place. At first, he took her to fancy restaurants, bought her nice clothes and lingerie, telling her, “A beautiful girl needs beautiful things.”
But one night everything changed for Josie, who can’t be named to protect her safety. She found out her “knight in shining armor” was actually a pimp.
He took her birth certificate, social security card and told her that she wasn’t leaving, that she owed him for all he had done. He hit her and forced her to have sex.
That night, he brought over men. “One after the other, then day after day — my life was men, tears, never enough food or sleep,” Josie wrote in a testimonial collected by a Ventura nonprofit organization.
This undisclosed janitor’s room in Ventura used to be the location where reformed ex-pimp and gang member, Javie, sold women members of his gang. He had a single woman service up to 50 men for anywhere between $20-$100 per client, but only paid her $5 to $20 for her work.
The story came to Katy Hoover, a registered nurse and aftercare director for Hope Rising Ministries, which helps survivors of sex trafficking regain independence and normalcy.
“Sex trafficking has become the fastest-growing crime industry in the world, second only to drugs,” said Hoover. “A woman can be sold over and over again. A child can be sold over and over again.”
Hoover says we apply different standards to sex trafficking in the U.S. than we do abroad. “As Americans, we can say a 6-year-old girl in Thailand being sold for sex is beyond prostitution, it’s trafficking. But in the U.S., we tend to dismiss sex trafficking as personal choice.”
Hoover’s dedication to survivors began two and a half years ago after hearing a TED Talks presentation about sex trafficking in India. After her layoff from hospice work, she began volunteering with victims and survivors. Instead of going to India, she found her calling here in the United States.
Hoover thought Ventura was a safe place for the trafficked women to transition to normal life, until she learned the trafficking was happening here as well.
A press release by the city of Ventura reported an increase in massage businesses requesting business licenses since 2006. By October 2012, it was reported that 64 massage establishments were in business. Although there exist massage businesses offering muscular and holistic therapy, some are fronts disguising themselves as legitimate businesses but actually, obviously in the sex trade.
Last October, KABC reported a sting operation conducted by the Ventura Police Department Street Crimes Unit where two massage parlors were in question. Both establishments were located on downtown Main Street in Ventura. Police arrested three people, two who solicited specific sexual acts to undercover police, the third a sex offender registrant who managed and operated the establishments. Consequently, they were shut down.
Katy Hoover, registered nurse and after care provider for Hope Rising Ministries, said that what starts out as a choice can become trafficking. Sex traffickers target vulnerable people like children in foster care, single moms and homeless women and girls. Their pimps control them through isolation, threats and sometimes even denied food and water.
But businesses suspected of trafficking aren’t easy to shut down. Ventura police Cpl. David Ruggiero said that hiding behind legitimate businesses makes it harder to prosecute.
“We don’t get enough evidence from employees or the women because they aren’t willing to talk. Many of these women have been conditioned, either through isolation, control or threat, to protect the pimps. There is also a language barrier and most of them are already afraid of law enforcement.”
Another concern is community involvement. Ruggiero says there aren’t enough tips coming from residents. This may be due to lack of knowledge.
“Massage parlors are supposed to be closed at 10 p.m.,” he said. “If you see men coming in and out of one after hours, contact the Ventura police.”
Private residences are also places where trafficking occurs. “If you see a carload of (frightened) girls forced into a private residence, that could be an indication,” Ruggiero said.
Ventura residents can take steps toward learning more about sexual slavery and human trafficking. There are events and organizations in Ventura that residents can participate in to help battle the odds.
Today, Thursday, March 7, Soroptimist International is sponsoring a community walk to raise awareness on human trafficking in the Ventura area. The walk begins at 5:30 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church in Oxnard.
A reception and panel discussions will follow where members from city, county, state and federal agencies will speak about human trafficking and sexual slavery. This presentation will give community members an opportunity to learn more about sex trafficking and prevention, how to become involved, and what legislative actions are currently taken to stop human trafficking and sexual slavery.
“Community members will have an opportunity to ask questions and learn more about this growing issue but also meet the organizations, which are experts on the issue,” said Debbie Gohlke of Soroptimist International, who is helping organize the event.
“We need our community to be the eyes and ears for the police,” said Ruggiero, who believes community involvement helps combat the issue and build stronger cases. Not having strong cases or lack of evidence paired with the obstacle of limited resources makes it difficult to proactively investigate these cases.
“Budget cuts and lack of resources is the reason why the Ventura Police Department doesn’t have a dedicated unit specializing in these issues,” said Ruggiero. “When not enough cases are recorded, there exists no statistics to prove federal grant money is needed.”
But it also affects how the police respond. Ruggiero said law enforcement has to be re-trained to handle these issues. Only just recently have necessary materials been available to train the officers.
Prop. 35, which passed with 81 percent of the vote last October, increases prison sentences and fines for human trafficking convictions as well as requires registered sex offenders to disclose Internet activities and identities.
“Having Prop. 35 in place provides the necessary resources to retrain police because it mandates training for law enforcement officers in California,” said Ruggiero.
The laws on sex trafficking are new, which caused a delay in getting law enforcement agencies trained to properly investigate and handle these issues. “Not until 2000 was the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act passed, and a California State Penal Code [section] for human trafficking was approved in 2005,” said Ruggiero.
Ruggiero first learned about sex trafficking in 2009 when his church discussed the global problem. He sought out law enforcement classes, where he met contacts from the Los Angeles Police Department and also met with different organizations and people who work with the victims and learned the best ways to handle it.
The City of Ventura has a growing number of sex trafficking issues including massage businesses and individuals like gang members and career criminals. Although there are legitimate massage businesses, some are fronts for the sex trade.
After which, he had the Los Angeles Police Department Task Force give training at the Ventura Police Department. “They helped us understand how to recognize the victims but also how to proceed. For example, the practice in the past emphasized on arresting prostitutes, instead of focusing on prosecuting trafficking,” said Ruggiero.
The types of training given were to help recognize the issue, how to investigate it and how to provide aftercare for victims. Organizations like the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, California Narcotic Officers’ Association and the Department of Homeland Security helped with additional training.
Battling sexual slavery is a community effort. It requires the vigilance of the police department, involvement of residents and the cooperation from neighboring cities and their resources. The sting operation in October was successful because of the collaborative efforts of the Ventura Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department. But Ruggiero emphasizes that the approval to conduct the investigation would not have been possible without pressure from the public to do so.
“Law enforcement is increasing their involvement in prostitution investigations and is being trained to target pimps,” said Ruggiero. “As patrol officers begin conducting more thorough prostitution investigations in the field, it will lead to the arrests of pimps and, in some cases, johns. Involved johns will at least be identified, and their involvement will be documented in police reports, meaning they will have less anonymity.”
Sex trafficking is also conducted by gang members and other career criminals because it is a highly lucrative. It creates a problem of how the community treats the victims.
Hoover believes the public doesn’t distinguish between prostitution and sex trafficking, so a victim is often accused of choosing this lifestyle.
“Many times, what starts out as a choice becomes trafficking,” Hoover said. “When a woman has a knife held to her neck for resisting, is that her choice? Sex traffickers target vulnerable people like children in foster care, single moms and homeless women and girls.”
A 2000 United Nation protocol defines human trafficking as the process of transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person by means of threat, coercion, abduction, fraud, deceit, deception or abuse of power. It describes confinement for prostitution, pornography, forced labor, involuntary servitude, debt bondage or slavery.
“If someone is selling you for their benefit, then that is sex trafficking. If you are selling yourself for your benefit, then you are prostituting,” Hoover said.
She adds that a woman who makes the conscious choice to prostitute herself is most likely desperate and in need of help. “We want to help the woman who is chained to the bed but we don’t want to help the woman who is chained inside,” said Hoover.
The women and girls suffer various consequences from being prostituted. Some are murdered by their pimps, and others manage to escape. But once free, they face new challenges that stem from coping with the trauma. Hoover said that some of these women don’t even know they were trafficked until they start coping. This is because they develop what is called a “split,” a coping mechanism whereby they separate themselves from the sexual abuse.
“Many of the survivors suffer from complex PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which also includes mental disorders that could mimic schizophrenia or multiple personalities,” said Hoover.
At Hope Rising Ministries, she works on prevention, rescue and long-term recovery. The nonprofit organization visits schools to educate the public, helps exploited victims to regain their independence, and plans to assist with vocational training. “Rescuing alone isn’t enough. Restoration and transition to independence [are] just as critical,” said Hoover.
She believes eliminating sex trafficking is possible. Sweden enacted progressive legislation in 1999 that criminalizes the buyers of sex but protects the women victimized by prostitution. This caused a decrease in trafficking activity in that country. “It is as simple as supply and demand, no demand no supply,” said Hoover.
As for Josie, her pimp held her captive for several years. He impregnated her three times, forcing her to abort the first and beating her until she miscarried the second. On the third pregnancy, she found the courage to run away and save her baby. Previously, she was afraid to leave because she’d witnessed the killing of women who tried to escape. She fled to a rescue shelter, which later introduced her to Hoover.
A recent custody ruling granted Josie full custody of her 21-month-old baby. But she didn’t have to face the court alone. Hoover attended some of the hearings for emotional support. “At Hope Rising Ministries, we want to help them on their journey to recovery and independence as long as they want us to be involved. Sometimes that takes years,” said Hoover.
The survivor of this story consented to share her experience, without the use of names.
Due to dangers facing rescue shelters, locations are not mentioned so as to protect the women. For information on Hope Rising Ministries and Katy Hoover, contact 620-7407 or the national hot line for human trafficking, (888) 373-7888.