Hiding in Plain Sight: A First Responder’s Guide to Identifying Human Trafficking

January 31, 2019

In January 2014, the California Penal Code for the crime of Human Trafficking was modified to address concerns nationwide of what could be identified as modern-day slavery. California Penal Code, 236.1 makes it illegal for a person to financially benefit from the “commercial sexual exploitation” of both adult and minor victims. In cases involving adult victims, factors such as force, fear, fraud, or coercion is needed to qualify under this law. When the victim is a juvenile, only the act of a person financially benefiting from the commercial sexual exploitation of said minor is necessary to make it a crime.

Firefighters and paramedics are unknowingly at the forefront of the fight against this terrible crime. On a daily basis they are exposed to victims of these crimes when responding to calls for service. These types of incidents are often disguised as calls related to domestic violence, drug overdoses, or even shooting victims. Over the last few years, law enforcement has discovered the victims in the above-mentioned types of crimes, were often, in reality, commercial sex workers who were forced to work under fear of retaliation against them or a family member. The following are a few identifiers that will help you, as a first responder, identify and report these crimes to the appropriate investigating agencies.

One of the most important factors to look for when first making contact with these types of victims, is their attitude. They are usually very guarded and provide explanations for their injuries that do not match the type of injury suffered. They are often supervised very closely during the interaction, commonly to the point where their pimp or another girl under his control will not leave their side. This is out of fear of the victim exposing them. Getting the victim in a situation where they are alone will greatly enhance the possibility that he or she will disclose their current situation.

Another strong indication the person you are treating is a possible victim may be as easy as reading the writing on their skin. Tattoos are a common indicator of a victim’s involvement “in the life.” Tattoos such as king or queen crowns, ATM machines, large scribed names on the face or the thigh, money bags, diamonds, leopard spots, or even words like “Loyalty” and “100%” are commonly observed tattoos or brandings seen on a victim’s body. Sadly enough, victims are often treated like a billboard, forced to get these tattoos at the direction of a pimp as a way to enforce their control, show ownership, or even dissuade other pimps from stealing what they consider is their property.

Items in the victim’s possession may also help in identifying potential victims. Condoms, gift cards (used as payment or to hide payment), lubricants, and multiple cellphones are just a few common items you may find in the victim’s possession during your contact. Keep in mind, the cellphone is their lifeline to both their pimp as well as to social media. A victim will be very defensive about maintaining possession of his or her cellphone. This item is also very valuable to law enforcement in proving exploitation is taking place.

Regarding a juvenile victim, don’t be fooled by their general appearance of being just an ordinary looking teenager. They are often in regular street clothing. Tattoos are rare on these victims due to the fear of their exploiter being identified by these markings. Most juvenile victims will be picked up or recruited from a group home, inexpensive motels, bus stations, and train stations. Trains are a common mode for juvenile victims to get around. Lyft and Uber are also growing in popularity for the ease of use and ability to hide their exploits.

A large number of commercial sex victims are controlled by their exploiters by the use of drugs. Marijuana use is a common factor in controlling the victim, including getting the victim to return to their exploiter in order to get high. The use of methamphetamine and MDMA, a form of Ecstasy, more commonly referred to as “Molly,” is also a common drug provided by the exploiter to maintain control and allow the victim to stay awake for days at a time while being exploited. This factor should be taken into consideration when responding to an overdose call.

One of the most powerful drug a victims maybe found under the influence of, is also the most difficult to detect. This is in the metaphorical sense and involves the pimp’s influence over the victim. It will cause the victim to disown their family, lie, steal, and engage in numerous crimes in order to maintain this “high” the pimp instills in them. A pimp uses the child’s need for a parent figure, a higher self-esteem, or even a simple desire to be understood, against them. A pimp’s constant attention, mixed with a cycle of violence, helps form a trauma bonding between the pimp and their victim. Getting the victim away from the pimp is the only way to start the healing process and reintroduce the victim back into society. Until then, the victim’s actions are commonly irrational and deceptive, similar to a person under the influence of a drug.

Ethnicity in the world of human trafficking is universal. All races are sexually exploited. It is common for the victim to emulate the race of their exploiter, speaking in slang indicative to their surroundings. Most victims will remain at the learning level of the age when they first become a victim to this type of crime. An example of such is a 23-year-old girl who became embroiled in the life of human exploitation at age 13. Although she is now older, she may still have the mental capacity of a 13-year-old girl. Don’t underestimate a victim’s intelligence though, they are often still very streetwise.

This overview is only meant as a guideline to help with identifying a victim of human trafficking. Not all of the above factors completely represent a person to be a victim. If in doubt, contact your local law enforcement for assistance. As a mandated reporter, first responders must notify local law enforcement or the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) of any suspected child of human trafficking. DCFS can be reached via their hotline at (800) 540-4000.

By Detective Chris Hicks, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force

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