However, an organization’s headquarters or volunteer’s home means nothing when it comes to saving a victim of human trafficking, Higashi said.
“We’re pretty much concerned with the Bay Area, the state, and whoever we can help,” Higashi said. “You can’t be regional about the problem.”
January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month and Monday is Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
It’s all about education, Higashi said, adding that nothing is more gratifying than a success story. Pillars of Hope recently supported a young woman from Romania who was trafficked.
“She now has a full-time job and she’s thriving,” Higashi said. “In fact, a family in Vallejo donated a car for her so she could go back and forth to work. It’s one of those things where the community became part of the solution.”
It was 2010 when Higashi attended a church conference when one of the speakers asked, “If you had a daughter that was being trafficked, wouldn’t you do everything you could to find her?”
“Even though I don’t have daughters — I have sons — I know that yes, I would do anything to find her,” said Higashi. “As a father, I got that message.”
Higashi became involved in an international organization and, seven years ago, joined Pillars of Hope.
“I knew there was a local problem and I wanted to help,” he said.
Unfortunately, said Higashi, because of the internet “there aren’t borders to this anymore. They (the suspects) come from all parts of society; rich, poor. You can sit at your computer and buy an 8-year-old girl in the Philippines.”
COVID-19 hasn’t made combating human trafficking any easier, said Solano County Supervisor Erin Hannigan.
“It’s very challenging to gain attention on this subject during the pandemic,” Hannigan said. “Sexual exploitation of children can be at the hands of relatives, strangers met on social media. Without the eyes of mandated reporters — teachers, coaches, and other trusted adults — on our children because of the stay-at-home order, we are missing opportunities to provide support and removal to a safer environment.”
Hannigan is a member of the CSEC (Child Sexual Exploitation Committee) — a multi-jurisdictional organization made up of law enforcement from each city, Health and Social Service workers/DA office/sheriff and non-profit providers.
“There are ongoing efforts with CSEC to identify children/young adults who are exploited and their perpetrators to bring the children to safety and prosecute their abusers,” Hannigan said. “I have been active in the committee as well as bringing awareness to human trafficking, what it is, how a person/child can become a victim, empowering adults to identify the signs of trafficking in the school age children in their lives and ways of reporting and rescuing victims.”
The “average person” can take action in the fight against human trafficking, Hannigan said.
“Know the signs of human trafficking,” she said. “Inappropriate relationships with older youth/friends, new things like nails, hairdos, clothing maybe a vehicle that the responsible adult in the family did not pay for, can all be indicators that the child in your life is being groomed or already in the ‘business’.”
“What was eye opening for me was that human trafficking isn’t just people who are taken from their families and trafficked in cities far away,” Hannigan continued. “Recruitment can occur at school, by peers, not just stranger danger. Talk to the children in your lives about inappropriate behaviors that might indicate they are at risk. Be their rock and place of safety and security. Let the children in your life know that they are loved and valued.”
Though girls are the prevalent victims, many boys fall prey to traffickers, Higashi said.
“A lot of it is about survival,” he said. “It’s more of a complicated situation. Usually, they’re runaways.”
Keeping the subject in front of local elected officials helps, Higashi said.
“Drop them a line or email them. The people’s voice is important,” he said. “And attend awareness events that are happening in your community.”
When something looks questionable, don’t sit idly by, Higashi said.
“If you suspect something or see something, do something,” Higashi said. “Educate yourself and be aware of the signs of trafficking.”
Art Stine, another Benicia resident, takes another approach in his role with the American Red Cross “and as an individual,” he said.
“I talk to men and how they need to respect women,” Stine said. “That they need to think about what they’re doing and think about the words they use.”
Stine’s focus “is letting men know this (trafficking) will go away when men start treating women with dignity and respect.”
Human trafficking — from sex trafficking to labor trafficking — “is so prevalent,” Stine continued. “The pandemic has propagated it even more.”
It’s frustrating “when nobody seems to recognize” trafficking happening, Stine said. “It’s a problem when there’s lack of identifying it.”
It’s a red flag “even if someone is joking about ‘buying’ someone,” Stine said.
Though laws against human trafficking have become tougher in the last 10 years, it’ll never be enough to prevent human trafficking, Higashi said.
“I belong to another organization and we do what we consider ‘cyber patrol.’ We intercept calls from men trying to buy women,” Higashi. “You’ll never have a shortage of calls. There’s such a strong draw. And though penalties are stronger, the percentage of ‘johns’ and ‘pimps’ caught and prosecuted is still on the low side.”
To report any suspected circumstance, call the human trafficking national hotline, 1-888-373-7888.