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The Santa Barbara County Department of Social Services and Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley teamed up Wednesday to teach local youth about the prevalence of human trafficking in the region and how to recognize and respond to red flags.

Held at the Radisson Hotel, the event — which drew around 200 youths ages 12 to 18, parents and caregivers — was intended to increase awareness, prevent youths from becoming victims, and empower those involved in exploitation to take the necessary steps to recovery.

Event facilitator Catherine Hanna Schrock said human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children can involve forced prostitution as well as the creation of child pornography. Human trafficking occurs throughout the entire county and can affect youths from all socioeconomic backgrounds. 

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office reports that Santa Barbara County is a natural transit corridor for trafficking activities between San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Those cities make up three of the nation’s 13 “High Intensity Child Exploitation areas,” according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“Human trafficking among youth in our community is a growing problem in Santa Barbara County,” said Gustavo Prado of Santa Barbara County Department of Social Services. “Our hope is this event will educate our youth, their caregivers and the community in helping to combat an issue that affects everyone in Santa Barbara County.”

Wednesday's event featured a seven-person team of actors based at Point Loma Nazarene University, called kNOw MORE, that performed a series of dramatic scenes to serve as a cautionary tale of how teenagers can be lured into human trafficking. The scenes were interspersed with discussions on how to identify problematic signs.

“This is a story about Amanda — she’s 15 years old and he goes to high school in Santa Maria here,” Schrock said to the audience. Over the course of the scene, Sofia Zaragoza — the actress who played Amanda — meets a 21-year-old man online who charms her with gifts and attention before slowly becoming more controlling and manipulative over a period of months.

“What were some of the things that made Amanda vulnerable [to being trafficked]?” Jessica Kim of kNOw MORE asked the audience. One girl replied that the lack of adult supervision made Amanda vulnerable; another audience member pointed out Amanda’s low self-esteem.

Single-parent homes, loneliness, low self-esteem and unsupervised internet access were all factors that made Amanda vulnerable, Kim said.

Red flags that her friends and teachers could have recognized were changes in appearance, unexplained new clothes or jewelry, tattoos of someone's name or dollar signs and the use of drugs, Kim said.

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Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed

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