Human trafficking has become more sophisticated — and it happens closer to home than you think.
That was the message from Ester Yu, ZOE International assistant western regional director, who sat down with NorthPark Community Church pastor Robert Cavin during the church’s service on Jan. 28 to give a presentation on her organization’s mission and the surprisingly local threat of human trafficking.
The presentation was one of a series that Zoe brought to several local churches over the past couple of weeks, in conjunction with January being Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
“One of the biggest misconceptions that I had is thinking that sex trafficking was taking someone, kidnapping them, transporting them across state lines or to another country,” said Cavin. “Ester, you’ve opened my eyes to the fact that the mode has changed as the criminals have become more sophisticated.”
Founders Michael and Carol Hart created ZOE International in 2002 with the goals of sharing the Gospel and saving orphans and other vulnerable children, according to the organization’s official website. ZOE International, based in Santa Clarita, is currently active in the United States, Thailand, Mexico, Japan and Australia.
Yu, who joined the organization during an exploratory trip to Thailand, has been working with ZOE International for 12 years.
“Here in L.A. County, I think the misconception is that the victims are actually from abroad, which definitely happens,” Yu said. “But the majority of the victims that we serve are ages 12 to 17. Most of the time these are local, L.A., U.S. citizen children that are being trafficked.”
With ZOE International being based in Santa Clarita, the organization has devoted a large amount of time and resources to fighting human trafficking in the community.
“In the prevention work that we do, we’ve worked especially with the [William S. Hart Union High School District] and Sulphur Springs [Union School District],” Yu said. “In Castaic, we’ve done a lot of education to the local high schools. We’ve helped a lot of the Hart [district] high schools develop clubs around educating human trafficking. We’ve done all-day trainings with the social workers at Hart district, as well as the Antelope Valley school districts. And that has really been helpful because those social workers will say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is happening.’”
ZOE International also works directly alongside local law enforcement to aid first responders in cases involving trafficked children.
“In 2019, we started a contract with the Department of Children and Family Services in L.A. County to come alongside first responders,” Yu said. “So, when law enforcement finds a child who is being trafficked, we are on call 24/7, and when they call the local DCFS social worker to respond at the local Santa Clarita police station, they will call us and a victim advocacy agency to respond within 90 minutes to show up at this station and provide victim advocacy support for that child for the next year.”
Cavin emphasized how the advancement of technology and children’s access to it has made trafficking a much more prominent and serious threat, urging parents and guardians of children to pay close attention.
“This is education for moms and dads,” Cavin said. “It’s education for grandma and grandpa. Aunts and uncles. Something’s going on to the youth in our city in the fact that our kids can be reached through their cell phone.”
“You think, ‘This is not a topic for sixth-graders,’” Cavin continued. “Yeah, it is. Yeah, it is. And they now are able to be reached in their bedroom 24/7.”
According to ZOE International, 55% of child sex trafficking survivors reported meeting their trafficker through texting, websites, or apps. Additionally, one in six survivors reported being trafficked for the first time before the age of 12.
“We need to wake up,” Cavin said. “I’ve had conversations in the past couple years with folks about, ‘Hey, we’re trying to reach our youth. We’re in a different world,’ and had people tell me, ‘Look, it’s no different than it was when I grew up in the ’60s! We had drugs!’ You did not have a cell phone.”
Despite the dire tone of the presentation, Yu spoke of the positive results they’ve seen in the children that they’ve saved, with many of them growing up to either join ZOE International themselves or find other forms of advocacy and activism.
“[Our social workers] have been privileged to provide childhood experiences with these children because that’s been robbed of these kids. And they just want to do water gun fights, play board games and card games. They asked the staff to read the Bible to them to help them fall asleep. They’ve gone to church, local church partners to attend conferences or services. They’ve accepted Christ and asked to get baptized in our bathtubs and swimming pools.”
Yu also added that the most important factor in aiding the fight against human trafficking is simply being kind and willing to help those in need, especially children.
“Most of the children that become victims have a want or a need that isn’t criminal,” Yu said at a booth following her presentation while offering additional information and resources to event guests. “And instead of meeting somebody that can help them, they end up meeting somebody that is going to hurt them and take advantage of them. And so, what a different path it would be if instead, they met somebody who wants to help them and help restore them. So that, as a community, is something that we can do. Look around and see how we can help those in need.”