Every day in Santa Barbara County, there's a good chance that a child or young man or woman is being trafficked for sex.

They are among about 300,000 people across the U.S. that are exploited sexually for money each day, according to the National Center for Public Policy. January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and local officials are working to change the numbers.

In 2013, the District Attorney’s Office established the Human Trafficking Task Force, and in 2016, the DA and Sheriff’s Office joined forces to secure a $1.34 million endowment to step up their efforts. Called the Enhanced Collaborative Model to Combat Human Trafficking grant, it's administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

The three-year grant is divided by the two agencies -- $740,737 to the Sheriff’s Office and $600,000 to the District Attorney’s Victim-Witness Assistance Program.

“The idea is for law enforcement to be able to do proactive investigations and for Victim-Witness and service providers to be able to support victims and actually do outreach and education,” said Rita McGaw, Victim-Witness Program supervisor.

The grant helps pay for one dedicated full-time Sheriff’s Office human trafficking investigator and a specialized victim assistance advocate in the District Attorney's Office.

Human trafficking is a form of slavery, involving victims who are not only sexually exploited, but also forced to provide labor. Pimps lure and trap girls and boys, men and women from all walks of life into an existence of prostitution and abuse that often ends in serious trauma or death for their victims.

“Human trafficking does exist in Santa Barbara County,” said Lt. Brian Olmstead, head of the county Sheriff’s Office Special Investigations Bureau.

California is one of the top four human trafficking destinations in the country, according to the District Attorney's Office, and the Central Coast has been identified as a natural transit corridor for trafficking activity between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Identifying the problem

“Humanity is the casualty of human trafficking,” said Megan Rheinschild, county District Attorney’s Office victim assistance director, during a recent TEDx talk.

Rheinschild told the story of a 14-year-old girl, "Jane Doe," she met through her work with victims and witnesses.

In 2014, Doe was found by police in the lobby of a well-known hotel in Santa Barbara during a law enforcement sting, where undercover detectives answered an online advertisement offering the teenage girl for sex. The man responsible for pimping the young girl was arrested and prosecuted.

When Doe's pimp appeared in court, the prosecutor in the case asked Doe to describe how human trafficking works.

“You all really should know this,” the 14-year-old said.

Rheinschild agreed.

“We didn’t understand. Not only the terms and the words that described human trafficking, but the faces of the people and girls that were victims of sex trafficking in our own community,” Rheinschild said.

McGaw said she sees a lot of girls like Doe.

“You have a 15-year-old girl who maybe doesn’t have the best home life. She is looking for all of the things that we are all looking for -- love and acceptance. And maybe in some cases, food, clothes, things she should be getting at home but she is not,” McGaw said.

Potential traffickers prey on people by filling the needs they are looking for and eventually convincing them to prostitute themselves either by coercion or force.

“It’s not just kids from bad homes that have been abused. It’s all across the board,” McGaw said.

Getting to work

The portion of the human trafficking grant administered by the Sheriff’s Office helps identify victims, traffickers and buyers, called johns.

Much of the investigative work happens online as pimps advertise on social media and websites, like backpage.com.

The Human Trafficking Task Force has gone through tens of thousands of websites and pages, Olmstead said.

On Tuesday, investigators from the sheriff’s Human Trafficking Unit arrested 31-year-old Trevor Ferrel for allegedly trying to meet and give money to a young girl in exchange for sex acts.

Ferrel allegedly stalked his victims with a fake Facebook profile.

During the grant’s first year, the task force has identified more than 45 victims and arrested 15 pimps and 35 johns in similar cases.

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“We are just scratching the surface,” Olmstead said.

The District Attorney’s Office has also been able to secure 12 human trafficking-related prosecutions.

“Just about every pimp we have arrested has gotten about three years in prison,” Olmstead said.

While the task force has been focused on the sex side of human trafficking, it is working on other aspects of the issue, like victims forced to work in homes and businesses against their will. Many labor human trafficking victims are brought from other areas or countries or are similarly trapped like those trafficked for sex.

“One of the hardest parts of the grant is forced labor. Their passports are being held, they are being abused emotionally or physically,” Olmstead said.

The District Attorney's Office uses its portion of the grant to connect human trafficking victims with services that could get them help and hopefully eventually get them out of the cycle of abuse.

“Our successes look different than other successes. This population has so many other traumas. It is just really complicated,” McGaw said.

“So it’s not about rescuing someone or getting someone out of the life, though that would be great. It is about small signals of care: What can I tangibly do for you? Can I feed you? And maybe you will eventually get out of the life.”

The DA's office has also worked with officials to create a collaborative court called Helping Achieve Resiliency Treatment for Commercially Sexually Exploited Children, or the HART Court.

The HART Court is in session every other Monday in Santa Maria Juvenile Court.

On its docket are youth who have been arrested and found to have engaged in prostitution, who have disclosed commercial sexual exploitation after arrest on other charges or are highly suspected to be victims of sex trafficking.

The HART Court-involved young people have sustained criminal charges and are on, or subject to, a form of probation supervision.

So far, eight young people have graduated from the HART Court and 16 are going through the process.

“We absolutely would not be able to do this without collaboration,” McGaw said.

Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.

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City Government Reporter