January is 'Human Trafficking Awareness' month, and the SLO County District Attorney's office this week discussed local cases and what parents should know when it comes to keeping kids safe.
Human trafficking can be both sexual exploitation or slave labor, and California continues to have one of the highest trafficking rates in the United States.
J.T. Camp with the SLO County DA’s office said SLO County is a natural corridor for people coming from different parts of the state and out of state, seeking illegal sexual services.
“They do use this as a destination much like tourists use it for all the good reasons, we have the criminal element coming for all the bad reasons,” Camp said in a webinar hosted by the DA's office Wednesday.
Sheriff Detective Rainer Bodine said the pandemic domino affect increased the amount of people they’ve encountered who are coming into the county both providing and seeking prostitution.
“The cost of hotels are down," Bodine said. "So it’s easier for people to travel and come to our area and we have a pretty open area when it comes to the big scheme of the state.”
From 2019 to 2020, the SLO County Sheriff's Office conducted 38 operations related to catching traffickers and pimps, tracking down people trying to coerce youth online, and busting massage parlors operating sexual services.
“Some led to massage parlors being shut down," Bodine said. "Massage parlors haven’t stopped—they pop up, they go down.”
Bodine said the women police find providing sexual services in massage parlors are victims of sexual exploitation.
“People say they are making a choice, but nobody makes this choice, nobody chooses this career," Bodine said. "It’s people that don’t have choices or the choice is taken from them.”
Bodine said when it comes to child trafficking, it's rare in the county for children to be abducted off the street, that the real threat comes from the cyber world and children being convinced to run away or meeting up with a stranger that they chatted with online.
“It’s important to give your kids freedom, but there is also an understanding that you need to be watching what they are doing," Bodine said. "You need to be auditing the things they are doing because they may not know they are being exploited, or that it's going down that path.”
According to DA staff, the SLO County Human Trafficking team plans on conducting more operations this year, and the DA’s office is currently investigating four active sexual trafficking-related cases.