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Human trafficking is a very serious problem in our own backyard. There is a lack of public awareness, and it is an uncomfortable topic for many people. When most of us think about an issue like human trafficking, we think of it as a distant problem occurring in other countries. We don’t think of the United States as a hot bed for human trafficking, and we don’t think of a city like San Diego as one of the nation’s most afflicted cities. But let’s examine San Diego as an example of the issue we face as a nation.

Over the past four years, CSPP Associate Professor Monica Ulibarri, PhD, has been researching the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) in San Diego. “People don’t want to recognize it because it is dark and uncomfortable…because of the heaviness of the topic. And, there are a lot of misconceptions—people often think that it is an international issue and that all victims are moved from place to place, when, in fact, it is simply the sale and exploitation of children and it is happening in our own backyard,” said Ulibarri.

Dr. Ulibarri belongs to the San Diego Human Trafficking Research and Data Advisory Roundtable (HT-RADAR) – a collaborative group of researchers and data analysts who have skills and interests related to human trafficking in the San Diego / Tijuana (SD/TJ) region. One of her most recent studies explores the risk factors for being exploited, and another study analyzed the medical and psychological needs of survivors of CSEC. Here are some facts and findings on CSEC in San Diego County.

CSEC in San Diego

Facts and Figures

  • $810 million-dollar industry
  • Estimated 8,830 to 11,773 victims per year
  • Average age of entry is 15 years old

Risk Factors

  • Substance Abuse

-Substance abuse is a high-risk behavior for victims of many crimes, a risk that is augmented for children at risk of being exploited.

  • Walking to school or store alone

-Habitual periods without supervision provide more opportunity for offenders.

  • Feelings of insecurity or being misunderstood

-Many children turn to social media in times of vulnerability, and the platforms are sometimes used as avenues to lure children through conversation and flattery.

How to Recognize a Victim

  • Is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes
  • Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Appears malnourished
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture
  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Is not in control of his/her own money, no financial records, or bank account
  • Is not in control of his/her own identification documents

Mental Health Needs of Survivors

  • High rates of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, anger problems, and attachment difficulties
  • May engage in self-harm behavior like cutting
  • May have thoughts of suicide or attempt suicide.
  • Often use alcohol or drugs to deal with the trauma related to being trafficked

And perhaps the most important piece is what health service providers can do for their patients who have been exploited:

  • Build partnerships with law enforcement, criminal justice system, other service providers, researchers, and survivor groups
  • Learn forensic documentation to support the child/minor as a victim of CSEC/sex trafficking
  • Advocate for your patient
  • Learn about resources in your community
  • Become involved in the anti-trafficking movement

Dr. Ulibarri recognized the tremendous need for efforts to identify and prevent the commercial sexual exploitation of children in San Diego and decided to dedicate her skills to addressing the vital need. “My area of specialty was always gender based violence. I had been doing that for years, then – hearing all of these stories about local exploitation, I realized that I didn’t have to go across the border or anywhere else to affect change. I realized that it was happening in my own backyard, that it is a problem that needs addressing, and that I have a skill set that can be used to shine a light on the issue and contribute to the larger body of work that is so badly needed here in San Diego.”

Each and every San Diegan—and every American for that matter— should follow Dr. Ulibarri’s lead and recognize commercial sexual exploitation of children for the endemic problem that it is. While we may not all have the skill set of a highly-trained psychologist, we can each make an impact in our community by being a little bit more informed about the issue and a lot more engaged with our neighbors.

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