Last month, California's attorney general announced 54 felony charges against three men involved in luring victims from the Central Valley and trafficking them throughout the state.

The victims, including eight minors, were sold for commercial sex throughout the Central Valley, Bay Area and Los Angeles.

While the arrests remove three alleged traffickers from the street, local authorities said many cases go unprosecuted due to victims not wanting to cooperate or the difficulty of proving the crime. 

"If you're over 18, there has to be some force or coercion of some or coercion of some sort," said prosecutor Melissa Allen, who files human trafficking cases for the Kern County District Attorney's office. 

The coercion doesn't have to be physical force, Allen said. It could be something as simple as keeping the person's driver's license or some other property. 

If the person is younger than 18 they can't legally give their consent, so the investigation focuses on the prostitution of the minor, Allen said. 

The prosecutor's office in the past five years has filed three cases in connection with human trafficking for the purposes of prostitution with victims over the age of 18, Allen said, and six cases where the victims were minors. 

Also, it filed three cases in which defendants were alleged to have pimped a minor but didn't force them to prostitute themselves.

These cases represent just part of the human trafficking issue in Kern County, Allen said. Many go unreported, or don't proceed to criminal charges due to other factors.

"A lot of cases are identifying minors as human trafficking victims, but they're taken care of on the social services side of things because we're dealing with victims who aren't saying who the suspects are," she said. 

Michael Fagans, a spokesman for the Kern Coalition Against Human Trafficking, said the organization encountered about one victim of human trafficking a week in 2016, about a fifth of whom were minors. There were 39 cases of sex trafficking and nine cases of labor trafficking, where victims were forced to come to the area to work against their will.

He agreed with Allen that many victims are uncomfortable talking about what they've been through. He provided a vivid example of just how uncomfortable. 

"This Thanksgiving, while sitting at the table with family, go around the table and have each person talk about their most recent sexual activity," Fagans said. "That's the level of discomfort we're talking about when asking someone to talk in court about being trafficked."

Fagans said the bar is higher in these cases regarding what authorities have to prove as opposed to a case of pimping where human trafficking is not alleged. He described it as "more difficult, but not impossible."

Many cases of human trafficking follow a familiar script.

Most traffickers, Fagans said, pretend to a be a boyfriend and romance the victim. Then eventually they'll talk them into prostituting themselves.

Others use force. They'll rape the victim multiple times, use a Taser on them, burn their skin with cigarettes, use sleep deprivation and inflict other violence to force the victim into prostitution, Fagans said. 

By the time they're working the streets, many victims turn to drugs to self-medicate and numb themselves to what's being done to them, he said. In other cases, traffickers hook their victims on drugs as a way to control them. If they don't prostitute themselves, they don't get the drugs.

The victims often suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Fagans said one of the first things the coalition does to help them is simply having them make decisions on their own.

"Give them a series of stops where they're making choices," he said. "The first thing the traffickers take away is your choices. For some people, just getting on a bus and going somewhere is an enormous step."

Jason Kotowski can be reached at 661-395-7491. Follow him on Twitter: @tbcbreakingnews.

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