Story and photos by Shiloh Ireland and Miriam Raftery
View video by Douglas Quaid including event highlights and ECM interviews with Monica Dean (photo, left) and Dr. Rhonda Taylor
January 28, 2023 (Lakeside) –Sex trafficking of children inSan Diego “is happening in every single school district inSan Diego County,” NBC San Diego investigative reporter Monica Dean (photo, left) told parents and teachers during a showing of the documentary film “Stolen” at El Capitan High School in Lakeside on January 19.
That shocking evidence was found during NBC San Diego’s award-winning investigative reporting series on which the film is based. Dean, a mother of three young children, hopes to raise awareness to protect vulnerable children and teens in the community from exploitation by traffickers. “We all have to stand up against them,” she says of traffickers. “We all have a role to play.”
San Diego is one of the country’s hotspots for trafficking of adults and children – the FBI has ranked San Diego as one of the 13 worst regions in the United States with up to 8,000 victims per year.
The event was co-hosted by Dean, the Lakeside Union School District PTSA and El Capitan High School PTSA. Introductions were made by Superintendent Dr. Rhonda Taylor and by Scott Gergen, Principal at El Capitan High School.
Photo, above right: Monica Dean, NBC San Diego reporter, with Dr. Rhonda Taylor, Superintendent of the Lakeside Union School District.
After the film, a panel of experts including trafficking victims and people helping victims spoke and answered questions.
Local educators in attendance included Lakeside Union School Board Trustees, Andrew Hayes, Ron Kasper and Autumn Elleson as well as Dr. Gary Woods, Trustee on the Grossmont Union High School District Board, and Anthony Carnevale of Cajon Valley School District.
The documentary opens with a pimp in San Diego County Jail making calls on jail phones ( all jail calls are taped) to lure two underage girls to have sex for pay with a man in his seventies. Although the prisoner who solicited and trafficked the two teens is now serving a 10-year prison term, the older man who admitted on video to having sex with the juveniles has not serve any jail time. He was given immunity by former District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.
Johns who buy sexual services have historically often not been arrested, or charged only a small fine with no jail time.
The new DA, Summer Stephan, says she’s making it a priority to hold accountable those preying on minors in the sex trafficking trade and get help for survivors. “As your District Attorney, I am committed to preventing and prosecuting crimes of human trafficking while treating victims with dignity and compassion,” she has stated.
The film, produced by Emmy award-winning journalist JW August, covered the many ways that young people are recruited or coerced into sex trafficking locally.
How traffickers recruit teens
We warn kids about stranger danger. But most often, teens or even younger children are lured into sex trafficking by someone they know such as a family member, coach, or even a friend in middle school or high school.
- Traffickers often groom teens who are lonely and crave attention, including foster kids and runaways, and those from abusive homes. They may become a boyfriend, then lure a teen to a hotel room, where she or he may be raped by multiple men.
- Some traffickers entice teens or children to text nude or partially nude photos or videos, then threaten to publish them online or tell the teen’s parents. They may extort victims into performing sexual acts, and then extort them to recruit their friends.
- Drugs are often a factor. A pimp gets a victim addicted and dependent, then asks them to perform a sex act for money to pay for drugs.
- Internet recruiting by sex traffickers increased dramatically during the pandemic.
- Social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are popular ways for traffickers to find young victims.
- Gaming sites with chat rooms, such as Minecraft or Grand Theft Auto, are used by predators to lure children into trafficking.
The following is from the San Diego County office of Safety and Human Services:
“Children are often enticed into sexual exploitation with the promise of something of value to themselves or another person. Traffickers offer love, safety, food, shelter, clothing, money and other incentives. Shockingly, across the nation, the average age of entry for victims of exploitation of this type is 12-14 years old. In San Diego County, the average age of entry is 16 years old.”
Examples of commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) include:
- Street Walking
- Escort Agencies
- Phone Sex Lines
- Video Chats
- Private Parties
- Internet-based Exploitation
- Erotic/Nude Massage
- Gang-based Prostitution
- Interfamilial Trafficking
An astonishing number of hidden victims are boys and LGBTQ+ youth under age 17.
- As high as 50% of CSEC victims in the U.S. are boys
- The average age of entry into sexual exploitation for boys in the U.S. is between 11-13 years old, though even infants have been victims of sex trafficking.
The rejection of LGBTQ+ youth by parents or peers leads to increased homelessness, and homeless youth are a natural target for traffickers. Up to 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+. Of these:
- 46% ran away because of family rejection
- They are 7.4 times more likely to experience acts of sexual violence than their heterosexual peers
- They are 3-7 timesmore likely to engage in survival sex to meet basic needs
Most victims are not kidnapped during broad daylight and locked away (though this has occurred locally and nationally). Instead, human trafficking is most often a crime perpetuated against some of the most vulnerable members of our society through deception, psychological coercion and force.
Prostitution and other sexploitation of children acts, such as porn, are not victimless crimes. Human trafficking survivors have the same level of PTSD as Vietnam veterans.
How to spot trafficking victims
Below are some of the red flags that a child is being trafficked:
- Having multiple cell phones
- Running away from home
- Truancy, chronic absenteeism from school
- Sudden drop in grades
- Change of friends or alienation from regular friends
- Rumors among students regarding sex activities
- Sudden change in behavior, attitude or attire
- Anger, aggression, being suicidal or fearful
- Claims of a new and mysterious/secretive “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”
- An older boyfriend or girlfriend
- Drug use
- Fatigue, sleepiness
- Weight loss
- Bruises or other physical trauma
- New clothing or jewelry
- Hotel receipts
- Use of terminology related to sex work
- Secrecy with social media and phone
How to keep kids safe from traffickers
- Know where your children are and who they are with. If a child or teen is staying at a friend’s house overnight, call the friend’s parents to be sure there is supervision.
- Know what your children are doing on the Internet and Social media. One panelist remarked that her teenage daughter is not allowed to wear headphones while on the computer and daughter remains in same room with her mother while online.
- Teach children and teens how to stay safe from traffickers. Some schools are now presenting simulations of trafficking scenarios during assemblies, teaching kids the tactics used by traffickers such as blackmailing teens who sent revealing photos.
- Let children know that they are loved, even if they make mistakes, and encourage them to tell you if anyone has approached them inappropriately.
- Encourage your children to tell you, or another responsible adult, if they suspect a friend or fellow student may be being groomed by a trafficker, or be involved in trafficking.
How to get help
Decriminalizing prostitution for victims has had an unintended consequence. Formerly, victims arrested were often diverted by courts into programs to help them get out of being sexually trafficked. But now, this source of referrals to agencies helping victims has gone away, making it all the more important for community members to be vigilant and report signs of trafficking.
- If you or someone you know needs help, please call theChild Abuse Hotline at (800) 344-6000. Caring, trained Hotline staff are available 24 hours a day.
- You can get help for yourself or a suspected victim from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center toll free, 24/7 Hotline: Call 1-888-3737-888 or send a text to BeFree (233733).
- Some organizations working to help victims of sex trafficking include Generate Hope, North County Lifeline, Alabaster Jar, and Victims Services Committee.
Panelists and audience members speak out
Some former trafficking victims described how they were lured into sex trafficking. A woman was trafficked through a strip club, while still a minor. A man said as a teen boy, he was drugged and raped by his boss, then blackmailed into having sex for pay with hundreds of men.
A mother brought tears tosome in the audience when she announced that her child went missing for eighteen days. “I thought I was mother. I thought I knew everything my daughter was doing,’ she said. She advised parents of missing children to “be an advocate for your children. We have to be an advocate for all the children out there,’ adding that there are not enough law enforcement officers to adequately investigate all the cases of missing children.
Dr. Woods from the Grossmont Union High School District commented, “How can our districts become national leaders in helping our students resist the traffickers?” He proposed having teachers taught warning signs of trafficking and posters put in all school bathrooms to tell victims how to get help.
“This is a real evil,” he concluded, summing up the sentiments of other concerned educators and parents, “and we have to fight it.”
You can view NBC San Diego’s award-winning“Stolen”documentary series at