Sex trafficking survivor helps others identify victims

hollygibbs

I’ve seen the evolution of how we’re starting to re-examine our views on prostitution, now known as sex trafficking.  There’s no such thing as a child prostitute,  advocates say and they hope law enforcement, the medical community and others will understand that. Here’s a story about a woman who goes around to hospitals, to inform nurses about how to recognize a person who is being trafficked. The photo below is from the LAPD. All others by David Crane.  From my story (Daily News, May 15: 2016):

That summer between 8th and 9th grade, Holly Gibbs met a man at a local mall. She was shy and insecure. He was kind and complimentary.

“He said I was pretty enough to be a model,” Gibbs said. “He said things that made me feel really good about myself.”

Two weeks of words and promises were enough for Gibbs to be swayed into leaving her South Jersey home with him. But within a couple of hours of running away, Gibbs was forced into prostitution in the casinos of Atlantic City. She was 14.

It can happen in a flash. A teenager from a bad home or a little bit of insecurity meets a man who says he’ll always love her, care for, give her all she needs. Days later, she’s working on the circuit, on the well-known prostitution tracks of Fresno, Los Angeles, Compton, Anaheim, and the city of San Bernardino, another victim of sex trafficking.

• Video: Holly Gibbs on sex trafficking

Gibbs said she was lucky. She was saved two days later. She went to high school, to her prom, then college. But there are those trafficked for weeks, months or even years who go unnoticed. One place where they may get help is at hospitals, Gibbs said.

For the last 18 months, Gibbs has worked within Dignity Health’s Human Trafficking Victims Program, believed to be one of the biggest such initiatives in the West.

Her job is to train health care professionals across the system’s 39 hospitals in California, Nevada, and Arizona to look for the red flags of a sex trafficked victim: a gangmember’s name tattooed on a girl’s face, bruises, hunger and expressions of fear.

As a sex-trafficked survivor herself, Gibbs, now 38, said she met with others who survived across the country and learned that they could have been saved earlier.

“Most of them went through the emergency department several times, and some went through labor and delivery,” she said. “These were all opportunities when they could have been identified as a victim and someone could have intervened.”

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So far, she’s trained hundreds of staff in emergency departments at all Dignity Hospitals, including those in Glendale, Long Beach and Fontana. Now she’s in a second phase of the program, which is alerting nurses in maternity clinics. Gibbs spoke to maternity staff at Northridge Hospital Medical Center last week, which already operate the well-regarded Center for Assault Treatment Services or CATS, a program that provides support for sexually and domestically abused women and children 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys.

In the last few years, more awareness has been raised surrounding sex trafficking through the courts and legislature. Law enforcement officials are now more aware that youth caught in prostitution are victims, not criminals. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office conviction rate of those who pimp and pander nearly tripled from 2013 to 2014, from 28 convictions to 75. States have increased the sentences of those convicted of pimping and pandering, from what used to be a few months to nearly life sentences. Earlier this year, California Attorney General Kamala Harris launched an initiative called Truckers Against Trafficking in Alameda County, and the Federal Aviation Administration alerted airports on how to spot victims.

Hospitals add another layer to that awareness, said Nancy Bussani, the head of philanthropy for the Dignity Health Foundation.

“Within the system, we had lots of things happening to help people who are victims of human trafficking but we didn’t have a sense of what was working well,” she said. “We know virtually every victim is going to come to a hospital or clinic, and if we’re not recognizing what works, then we can’t help them.”

The foundation hopes Dignity Health’s program will become the national model but they need to expand the program. A fundraiser will be held in San Francisco on Thursday to help bolster money for the program, Bussani said. She also said the hospital system needs greater community support so that once released from medical care, survivors can find work training programs, housing, and other resources.

“It couldn’t be solved by hospitals alone,” Bussani said. “We’re not the whole solution,”

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Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County District Attorney’s office and co-founder of the human trafficking unit there, agreed that the entire community needs to be aware that sex trafficking can happen anywhere. Even in Anaheim, near Disneyland, she said. She said since her office began the human trafficking unit in 2013, there have been 130 convictions of those who try to sell youth into commercial sex. Men who are caught soliciting youth, known as “sex purchasers,” have their photograph taken and placed on the District Attorney’s website, an idea first used in the Inland Empire.

“The stunning violence and the lack of humanity that these animals have against these victims … They are told when to eat, what to eat,” Schroeder said of those who pimp victims. “The victims are so brainwashed and so damaged, that they need resources.”

National organizations against sex trafficking have found that 72 percent of the victims identity their country of origin as the United States. Still, the public believes it’s a foreign problem.

Years after she was arrested for prostitution, Gibbs said she never realized she was a victim of sex trafficking until 2009, when she saw a documentary about it. That’s why she wants to share her story, and to educate the public about human trafficking in general, which includes people who are forced into slave labor.

“By all means, we have to educate teens about the tactics used by pimps and gangmembers to lure victims into prostitution,” she said. “But we also have to educate kids about human trafficking in general. They should know about worldwide trafficking. We have to be aware in our communities. If we’re not paying attention, who is?”

 

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