BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – It’s a tough topic to tackle, often left in the shadows, but the Kern County Department of Human Services is trying to change that.
Our state leads the nation in reported human trafficking cases. To shed light on the problem, Tuesday, the Kern County Board of Supervisors recognized January as National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. A press conference with experts on the topic and survivors followed.
“My mother was my very first trafficker,” shared Angie Zuniga, a human trafficking survivor. “At the age of 12 years old I was sold into prostitution by my mother.”
That was her life for the next 17 years.
“I found myself lost and broken and not knowing how to escape the life,” said Zuniga.
At the age of 29, Zuniga was taken off the streets and brought into a shelter.
Two and a half years later she was out on the streets again, but this time as a survivor advocate with the Department of Human Services.
“I’m able to go back out and work with youth and women that are still lost in that lifestyle,” said Zuniga.
The numbers of those trapped in that life are frightening. Over the last two years, DHS says it’s received 175 calls of alleged human trafficking with about 200 children identified as victims.
“The average age for a child that is brought into human trafficking is 12-14 years old,” said Erin Gillespie, program specialist with DHS. “Interestingly enough, boys enter at a younger age, at around nine years old.”
And, human traffickers target young people from all walks of life.
“Human trafficking victims in our community are our cheerleaders, our athletes, our a+ students, but they are also our at-risk populations, our foster youth.”
Gillespie says there risk factors parents should look out for.
“If you have a child that is coming home with bruises, has started hanging out with a different population of kids, they have multiple cell phones, unexplained amounts of cash, their appearance changes,” said Gillespie.
And social media is one of the biggest threats to our children.
“Be involved in your child’s life because if you think this won’t happen to your child, you’re mistaken.”