You might have seen that disturbing film from the mid-'80s called Blue Velvet, in which a young man discovers a sinister underworld lying just beneath his idyllic suburban home town. It came to mind recently when I went to a luncheon held in honor of Sharmin Bock, prosecuting attorney for Alameda County and candidate for San Francisco District Attorney.
As she discussed the need for greater collaboration between local cities and towns, Sharmin shared one unsettling story after the next, detailing how criminals prey on our young by coercing, forcing and trafficking them into sex slavery. Yeah, I know, not exactly something you want to hear about when you are eating cobb salad and drinking a cooling glass of ice tea. But there it is.
Sharmin told us of one Volvo-driving mother in a well-to-do town in Contra Costa County who dropped her two 13-year-old daughters off at the mall one afternoon. She didn’t see them again for weeks. They had met a seemingly nice young man who invited them over to his house to meet his friends. The girls were held hostage and repeatedly sold as sex slaves until the FBI were able to rescue them. This isn’t Thailand, people, or a made-for-TV movie; this is here.
UNICEF’s website states that as many as 1.2 million children worldwide are trafficked every year for cheap labor or sexual exploitation. According to Shared Hope International and confirmed by the U.S. Congress, more than 100,000 American children are exploited in domestic sex trafficking. The average entry age: 12-14 years old.
, founder of Fremont-based California Against Sex Slavery, explains, “Gangs are moving beyond drugs to the more lucrative sex trafficking. You can sell a person over and over again, but you can only sell a drug once.”
Sharmin says, “Human trafficking is not a Third World or international phenomenon—it is a well-documented domestic problem occurring in our own backyard.”
Oakland and Sacramento are considered national hotbeds for sex slavery. Sadly, San Mateo County is not far behind. According to Sharmin, traffickers keep their victims enslaved at the hotels that ring the San Francisco airport to service businessmen and other travelers.
But surely, this couldn’t happen here in Our Fair City?
I reached out to Liz Schoeben, founder and executive director of Counseling and Support Services for Youth. Her organization joins with elementary, middle, and high schools up and down the Peninsula to help troubled youth. In fact, this fall they will work at six of our elementary schools here in Palo Alto.
When we spoke, Liz assured me she had not heard of any cases of the nature Sharmin had shared. And then she hesitated. “Well, there is a new, deeply disturbing trend we are seeing in the high schools. Upperclasswomen, typically seniors, are luring freshman girls to parties and pimping them out to the senior and junior boys.”
“Oh yes, senior girls getting paid by senior boys for sex with the younger girls,” Liz clarified. “We have seen incidences of this in a number of high schools in our area.”
Beyond all of the unsettling moral issues, I wonder if those upperclasswomen realize they can be prosecuted as child sex traffickers? The laws have finally caught up with the reality of this kind of torture. State law AB 22, passed in 2005, established human trafficking as a federal crime, but the sentencing is weak. Sharmin says there is more to do.
She and others, such as Daphne Phong, are working to toughen the trafficking laws in our state. They are lobbying to establish an initiative on the November ballot that will lengthen jail time from the maximum of eight years to life in prison, force convicted child sex traffickers to register as sex offenders, provide services for victims, and require mandatory training for law enforcement. You can learn more on their website.
I asked Liz what parents and the community could do? She said, “The best way to protect our children is to stay connected, to be in their life and to know what is going on.”
So, I put down my laptop and went on a walk with my daughter. Just like in the movie, the yellow sun was shining, the blue and black birds were singing, and I knew there was so much more than meets the eye in our idyllic suburban town.