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Human trafficking victim speaks out; DA looks to create task force to help others like her

Advocate Oree Freeman was sex trafficked from age 11 to 15. She told her harrowing story Thursday as part of a three-day conference created by the Kern County District Attorney’s office and the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force.

Coming from a broken home, Freeman said she was raped at 10 years old and ran away from home. She was groomed by the time she was 11, falling into a vicious cycle between going to juvenile hall and falling back into sex trafficking. 

“I had no sense of belonging,” Freeman said. “I had not one safe person in my childhood that I could talk to.”

The 26-year-old said she hopes policymakers and law enforcement discuss human trafficking as a public health issue. 

The Kern County District Attorney’s office hopes Freeman’s story raises awareness for both law enforcement officials and community members alike. Officials from all over California and Hawaii arrived at the Marriott Hotel in Bakersfield to receive training. Representatives from elected officials' offices and hospitals also attended.

The training also served as a way to begin the process of creating a human trafficking task force in Kern County, akin to the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, said Tyson McCoy, a deputy district attorney.

Juan Reveles, the supervisor for the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, said their group revolutionizes law enforcement’s view of human trafficking by taking a victim-centered approach. Prior to this perspective, police officers considered victims to be prostitutes, and therefore arrested many for solicitation, Reveles said.

“Entirely new techniques have been developed — new ways of making contact (with) them, from the very first word that you say,” Reveles said. “We assume that they are a victim, we start off with that premise. It’s a world of difference. It’s an entire paradigm shift law enforcement is going through.”

Reveles said the Human Trafficking Task Force contains members from many different backgrounds, such as law enforcement, social services and victim advocates. Before, many task forces contained officials from local, state and federal levels.

“I think the (Orange County task force) should be modeled across the state,” Reveles said. “This core team in Orange County is surrounded by a community. Everybody takes a piece of this big problem.”

District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer said Kern County faces a massive human trafficking problem. However, these traffickers do not just exist on the streets, but also on the internet, Zimmer said.

“With electronics, … that are being demonstrated for these officers inside this conference, we're going to do better,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer also called for the laws surrounding human trafficking to be changed. California's penal code that defines human trafficking is not considered a violent felony, Zimmer said.

“We're going to be working very hard to make human trafficking, and the conviction for human trafficking, a strike offense — that is a serious or violent crime,” Zimmer said. “Hopefully, the California Legislature is ready to do something.”

Doug Bennett, the founder of Magdalene Hope, a nonprofit that provides aid to women who have been trafficked, said it is imperative for law enforcement to hear the stories of survivors. These survivors can share “signs” that law enforcement should look for when trying to save victims from the system, Bennett said.

Kern County is a hotbed for human trafficking because of Highway 99, Bennett said.

Traffickers will transport victims via this corridor because it easily connects several cities.  

“It keeps the law enforcement guessing,” Bennett said. “It’s just easy for traffickers to sell their product to the next city. They transport them from city to city, keep them there for a few days, and rotate them.”

Bennett said that a multipronged approach is key to eradicating this issue. Kern County does not allocate money for the creation of a task force that would help address human trafficking adequately, Bennett added.

“We need to all work together,” Bennett said. “Law enforcement, nonprofit organizations, judges, the court system, city council — a collective effort to stop this.”

Throughout her presentation, Freeman urged the community to look for young girls who are being trafficked. Additionally, Freeman said the systems in place do not matter — rather, it is the people within that system who helped her escape the heinous cycle.

“To be able to share your story and have your voice heard is really important,” Freeman said. “I wouldn’t change my story. I know what it’s like to live through chaos. I’m able to talk about that, because I’ve lived it. I know what it’s like to heal from it. I can move forward and help somebody."