BY DAVID JAMES HEISS
Million Kids CEO and former Beaumont resident Opal Singleton, an expert in global human trafficking hosted County District Attorney Mike Hestrin for her monthly Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force (RCAHT) presentation, held via Zoom Wednesday morning.
Nearly 70 participants logged in to listen to Hestrin’s presentation, representing various agencies and organizations that partner in the effort to combat human trafficking, such as school districts and public health departments, churches, foster agencies, family advocates and mental health specialists.
According to Hestrin, who has been the DA for seven years, the vast majority of sex trafficking cases exceeded more than 1,500 in the country last year, including some labor and sex trafficking
California consistently has highest rates of arrests and prosecution for trafficking, according to Hestrin.
Children 15-17years old is highest proportion of targeted crimes.
Countywide, 131 investigations helped lead to 221 arrests related to trafficking and prostitution.
Partners of a task force partnered with six law enforcement agencies to focuse on demand in online trafficking and prostitution, with task force members posing as people under 14 to see if subjects or individuals were going to set up activities with underage individuals.
Hestrin explained that people coming from out of county into the county for sex with minors leave behind an electronic trail of messages and e-mails, or voice recordings, all of which are all recorded, which is logged and collected; when the “traveler” comes into the county to meet at a specified location, they are arrested (obviously no child is present).
“It’s important we do this, because children are more and more online,” Hestrin said. During the pandemic while they were learning online, cases doubled.
Hestrin dispelled myths that lowering consequences to those who prey on children will not diminish under his watch.
Hestrin explained the momentous task ahead in dealing with online predators, travelers from out of county and sometimes out of country; the trading of child pornography on the dark web — “There are areas of the Internet that are quite nasty and pretty perverted. We have to go into those areas to monitor those activities. No child exploitation happens without the involvement of a real child.
We’re going to find that child, and where those images are filmed; many times in homes; they’re doing it for money and their own greed,” Hestrin said.
During a general discussion after the presentation, Singleton explained that perpetrators have to film themselves violating a child and providing that as evidence to an address on the dark web in order to prove that they are not a member of law enforcement; some sites have over a million users paying upwards of $200 every few months in order to participate.”
The task force set up in June 2020 and immediately had overwhelming work and conducted 54 arrests of those dealing in child porn
They were doing the work before, just with fewer resources, Hestrin said.
“To date over 100 arrests as of July. We’ll have a larger number of people preying on our children that will be arrests,” Hestrin said. “It’s good news that we’re making these arrests. This crime is so overwhelming and has to do with a lot of things in our society, such as proliferation of technology. We want people to know that we don’t want these activities being done in Riverside County. We are willing to prosecute cases and get justice for victims; but would be better to not have victims at all,” which requires a lot of prevention and education work, he explained.
Hestrin said that “In all four DA county offices, each regional office has a deputy DA with a human trafficking expert who prosecutes and handle incoming exploitation cases. We pair up their DAs with experienced detectives and get tremendous results, and go into schools to teach how not to become a victim” and advocate awareness.
Hestrin explained that predators can use geolocation to access children after grooming them.
Want to make sure that sex workers and victims are receiving the services they need; many times they’re not physically restrained, but they can be emotionally manipulated, and want to give them healing; many times it’s a hard convo to have.
Prosecution isn’t about prosecuting them, they’re victims. The pimps and traffickers are the targets.
PTSD and fear are real consequences for sex workers. The public has to see things differently, Hestrin said.
“I would like to see a world in which online platforms are held accountable for what takes place on their platforms; don’t buy that they’re not responsible for that,” he said.
There have been challenges to prosecution: according to Hestrin, there is the idea among jurors and judges that “this is prostitution and prostitution is a victimless crime. We have to change the paradigm and get people to understand there’s a dark side, victim-blaming and prejudices we deal with when prosecuting traffickers.”
The most common kind of coercion is mental, a form of grooming in which usually girls think that the trafficker is their boyfriend who will protect them, Hestrin said.
“It’s deep manipulation coming from predators; we deal with uncooperative victims; often it takes a long time to open dialogue and getting the victim away from the trafficker in order to build rapport,” Hestrin said.
Labor trafficking cases are difficult; often a lack of trust with law enforcement; victims are told that the government is out to get them, and they’ll get in trouble if they’re caught.
“We have to educate jurors that, though victims are young, it’s not their fault they went online or on an app, and bridge gaps that victims are not just someone else’s kids — it’s all of us, in affluent and poor neighborhoods. This is not just isolated to certain parts of our society,” Hestrin said.
Staff Writer David James Heiss may be reached at email@example.com , and messages may be left at (951) 849-4586 x114.