Madera’s share in a nationwide problem was addressed during the “Shining a Light on Human Trafficking” presentation.
The event, held at the New Life Apostolic Church on 510 Gateway Drive on Saturday, ran for two hours, and addressed the issue of sexual slavery among women and girls, and how it effects the Madera community, which rests between two of the largest cities in America where trafficking is a problem.
“And I’d like to point out, what’s in between San Francisco and Los Angeles? That’s us, the Fresno-Madera area is us,” said Yolanda King, the children’s ministry director for the church, and the main coordinator of the event. “So we know it’s happening here. Highway 99, that’s transportation, and all along the freeway, these children are being trafficked.”
According to King, half of all those lured and then recruited into prostitution will be children, with the average age of an underage victim being 13. King also stated that this fate will happen to one in three runaways on average, and that the life expectancy of trafficking victims is seven years, with only one in every 100 being rescued.
King also went into detail on how traffickers and pimps will recruit their victims, targeting women and girls from broken families.
“The majority of the time, they know the person, so recruitment sites … are recruiting our children on malls, bus stops, parks, playgrounds, court rooms, and schools,” King said. “It’s happening in the school system.”
Further information on the plight of trafficking victims was brought forward by Madera Police Sgt. Daniel Foss, who described the selling and trading of prostitutes in trafficking, which he pointed to as a modern-day form of slavery.
“I know it’s hard for some people to believe that it happens every day. And here’s why it’s so hard to combat,” Foss said. “Nobody wants to admit that they willingly got into this — that they got fooled so bad that this is where they’re at in their life. So they just won’t admit it.”
In addition to his work with the Madera Police Department, Foss also runs Overcoming Limitations through Intervention, Values, and Empowerment (or O.L.I.V.E.), an organization dedicated to helping victims of prostitution and human trafficking leave the life. Foss further discussed the problem locally.
“In Madera alone, you will find at least 20 to 40 prostitutes walking the streets,” Foss said. “If you go inside the bars, you’re going to find quite a bit more. If you go online, for the Fresno-Madera area, it’s hundreds, if not thousands, every single day are posted.”
Foss and King both described a common approach used by traffickers to lure victims, known as the “Romeo.” In this method, the Romeo pimp will initially pretend to be a friend with the victim, and feign sympathy. After showering the victim with gifts, the exploiter will ask them to have sex with others for money. According to Foss and King, this is when the victim becomes trapped.
This was also similar to the experience of sex trafficking survivor Debra Woods, who went on to help create Breaking the Chains, an organization devoted to helping trafficking victims. In her speech, Woods relayed her own story, in which she spoke of her mother, who herself was in prostitution.
“My mother, I knew, was a prostitute, and I told everybody: ‘I would never be like her. I would never do something like that. How could I? That’s disgusting,’” Woods said. “But (at) the same time, that’s how the Devil works, right? I’m believing that I am so slick that there isn’t a man alive that wouldn’t walk into this room, and I wouldn’t take everything he’s got.”
As described by Foss and King, Woods said that she was lured by a Romeo pimp, who feigned sympathy to seduce. After she was trafficked, however, she stated that his demeanor completely changed.
“I ended up spending almost ten months in the most incredible nightmare. I was not in a relationship — there was no more Romeo,” Woods said. “This guy quickly turned from who I thought he was into the Devil himself.”
Woods was forced into prostitution, but was able to escape. After doing so, she suffered from drug use and post-traumatic stress disorder. She was able to overcome this as well, citing her faith as the reason for her survival.
The evening concluded with a brief candlelight vigil, and a prayer for the victims of human trafficking.