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RICHMOND (KPIX 5) — Human trafficking is being called an epidemic in Contra Costa County. There were just four cases prosecuted in the county in 2011, last year that number jumped to 32. A victim in one of those cases described her ordeal to KPIX 5.
“No 15, 16 year old girl gets up one day and decides she’s going to be a prostitute,” said the young woman, who we are calling Stephanie.
But that’s exactly what happened to her, when a so called boyfriend turned out to be a manipulative and violent pimp who victimized her for two-and-a-half years. Even though she was living with her parents, her home life wasn’t great and she was an easy target.
“I was a mess and then I found a guy who would stay with me and that’s what happened,” Stephanie said.
It’s a similar story for many who end up victims of human trafficking in what’s becoming an epidemic in the Bay Area. Trafficking occurs on the streets, and online. It involves girls and boys, the vast majority of whom live in urban areas.
“There is just a lot of vulnerable youth, a lot of accessibility. They can be moved easily from San Francisco, to Contra Costa County, to Oakland,” said Meredith Webb of Community Violence Solutions, a non-profit that offers victims of human trafficking support and guidance.
Stephanie got out of “the life” as she calls it for a while, but was lured back. “And I was doing that for a couple months until the Richmond Police rescued me,” she said.
The police arrested her and her pimp. It’s only in hindsight that Stephanie considers that the day she was rescued because at the time she did not want to leave the life.
“He had my mind so controlled. Like I just felt I couldn’t be anything without him. I needed him. I needed him to be in my life,” Stephanie recalled.
She was introduced to counselors at Community Violence Solutions, but Stephanie initially refused to cooperate with police or the counselors.
“Even though you don’t want you to be in that life, you don’t want to be selling your body. It’s still hard to let go of the whole thing,” she said.
It took weeks before she opened up, and it’s still not an easy road for her, or the people trying to help her.
“Our cars have been followed by exploiters, identifying that we’re out there with what they see as their girls. So they call on the phone (and say) ‘I know where you are at. I know what car you are in,’” Webb told KPIX 5
Webb said escaping the clutches of human trafficking takes years of hard work and patience. “When we meet them it’s almost like deprogramming,” she said.
Today, Stephanie is in school, and she calls herself a survivor, not a victim. But each day she sees images of her old life, girls like her on the streets.
“So many young girls out there. Babies, they are just babies,” she said.
Stephanie testified against her former pimp last summer. Two months ago she saw him again at his sentencing. He received four years in prison and will have to register as a sex offender from now on.