Those fighting against human trafficking in Kern County have become increasingly concerned by what they say is the spread of false information and urban myths regarding human trafficking by users on Facebook and other social media platforms.
So they decided to kick off a serious conversation about it.
The Kern Coalition Against Human Trafficking — a grassroots organization working toward a comprehensive approach to combat trafficking in Kern County — hosted a virtual discussion Thursday evening titled “The Truth About Trafficking: An Honest Conversation.”
“All of us in the anti-trafficking fight, this year especially, felt that there has been this large wave of misinformation,” said coalition Co-Director Sandy Woo-Cater. “There are a lot of misconceptions out there.”
The idea was to address some of the most prevalent misconceptions currently impacting the anti-trafficking work they do locally in Kern County.
But the online panel discussion also addressed warning signs to watch for, legal aspects and the need for a victim-centered approach to trafficking.
Dustin Contreras, the coalition’s other co-director, said one of many examples is the Facebook post purportedly warning readers that human traffickers were placing leaflets on car windshields in a Target or Walmart parking lot to make them vulnerable to abduction when the driver gets out of her car to remove the leaflet from the windshield.
Many of these urban legends focus on abduction, Contreras said. Except in rare circumstances, that’s not the way human trafficking usually happens.
Child traffickers are not tagging cars as potential targets, as another urban legend would have people believe. There’s no evidence to support the long-running posts that claim abductors approach people with perfume samples that are actually chloroform.
These stories — and dozens more — invented by people seeking attention or viral “clicks” are dangerous, Contreras said, because they distract law enforcement officers and the public’s attention away from real-world problems that cause real suffering to real victims.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the most pervasive myth about human trafficking is that it always or almost always involves kidnapping or otherwise physically forcing someone into a situation.
“I call that the Liam Neeson version of trafficking,” Woo-Cater said, referring to the popular actor’s “Taken” movies.
In reality, most traffickers use psychological means such as tricking, defrauding, manipulating or threatening victims into providing commercial sex or exploitative labor.
“It’s a global problem, but we also need to realize it’s happening right here in our backyard,” said Angela Look, supervisor of the commercially sexually exploited children unit at the county of Kern’s Child Protective Services.
According to Look, about 250 children have been identified as victims of trafficking in Kern, but because victims are rarely identified until they acknowledge they are victims, the actual number of victims is much larger.
Alicia Zayas is a behavioral health therapist working with inner-city youth in Bakersfield, with more than a decade of experience working in the anti-trafficking field.
Zayas said individuals who have a rescue mentality regarding trafficking victims have been known to believe fake posts about human trafficking and attempt a rescue where none was needed. Other false reports result in calls to police or other law enforcement officials.
It stretches already thin resources, she said. And calls to police or emergency hotlines can be counterproductive.
“It can bog down the hotline system,” she said.
Rather than employing action movie moves, “boyfriend pimps and finesse pimps” often use the promise of gifts or romance to lure teens into the world of prostitution, Look said.
These men who prey on vulnerable girls and boys often seek out foster youth or LGBTQ teens who may already have a history of being abused or victimized.
“But one positive adult (in their lives) can truly be the difference,” she said.
Pay attention, she said. Ask questions. Seek help.
Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.