College of the Canyons hosts human trafficking awareness event

Harmony Dust, author and founder of Treasures, shares her story of survival and struggles women encounter with about 300 people at College of the Canyons during the an information conference on human trafficking. Austin Dave/The Signal

To raise awareness about human trafficking and the connection between childhood sexual abuse and the sex industry, College of the Canyons hosted a human trafficking awareness event Friday.

The free event, “It Happens Right Here! Human Trafficking And How To Make A Difference,” was held at College of the Canyons’ Valencia campus and featured resource tables, presentations and a panel of speakers who represented philanthropic organizations, such as ZOE International, Cherished, Journey Out, Saving Innocence, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Human Trafficking, and the Department of Child and Family Services.

Raymond Bercini, a detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Human Trafficking Bureau, and sex-industry survivor Harmony Dust, spoke early in the day, as attendees wandered in and out to collect information from the various organizations in attendance.

Panelists shared information detailing the prevalence of human trafficking around the world, including the Santa Clarita Valley. Then Dust shared the story of her time in the sex industry and how her boyfriend pimped her out at a young age.

It could be happening right now and you’d likely not even know, said Jason Plunkett, a psychologist and United States director for ZOE International. There may be an individual walking down Sepulveda Boulevard right now and the passers-by may think that they had a choice to enter the life, but often, the victims don’t.

“Over 100 countries have defined (human trafficking) as an issue and are putting together task forces to address the millions of victims that are identified every year,” Plunkett said. Often defined as the second largest criminal enterprise in the world — trailing only drugs — human trafficking might be a larger issue, but the public doesn’t know because it’s operated so secretly.

Nearly 25 million human beings have been identified as trafficking victims, but some experts say it’s closer to 40.9 million if you include those who are forced into marriages, Plunkett said. “All of the statistics out there sometimes change, and it’s not that they’re inaccurate. It’s just that it’s such an underground enterprise that we don’t quite know the stats because we don’t know what we don’t know.”

Birthed out of Santa Clarita and founded by a Hart High School graduate named Carol Hart — who moved to Thailand to start the organization — ZOE International seeks to assist victims of human trafficking across the globe through prevention, rescue and restoration.

As the group nears the completion of a home in nearby Acton, ZOE International currently operates in five countries, including Thailand, Australia, Japan, Mexico and the United States, Plunkett said. The work takes different forms in each country.

In Thailand, the group works hand-in-hand with local police and the FBI during investigations and also provides victims with a safe home where they receive meals, education and unconditional love, according to the website.

In America, the group is focused on prevention and participates in training and awareness outreach at schools, government organizations, nonprofits, churches and roundtables, such as the one recently hosted by Rep. Steve Knight.

“It’s good to be a part of stuff like that, because we believe awareness is the answer,” Plunkett said, adding the group’s prevention work is also done through MyGenMyFight, a COC club that was initiated by ZOE.

“We’re in different colleges, high schools and now junior highs to help kids take a stand in regards to this is my generation, this is my fight and I want to see human trafficking end,” he said. “Often times, we don’t think this is going to end because we think the problem is too large — (just like people thought with slavery, the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide) —.but it will end, it’s just, ‘When?’”

Prior to the panel discussion, members of the audience were told that nearly every organization in attendance was in need of funding, so the panelists didn’t have to ask for it themselves.

Panelists added that funding is always needed, but they also need the public to provide understanding to the victims and for moral men in society to stand up and teach their children appropriate behaviors.

If you can’t donate, then Hanne Fellers, an outreach specialist for ZOE international, said the next best thing is to facilitate clubs like MyGenMyFight on local high school and college campuses.

It’s going to take a collaborative effort to solve the problem of human trafficking, Fellers said, which is why ZOE International will host a walk on Nov. 3 to show everybody that we are all in this fight together.

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