Program Uses Empathy to Combat Teen Sex Trafficking

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A student wears an anti-human trafficking T-shirt at a recent iEmpathy session in Long Beach.  (Susan Valot/KQED)

It didn't take Long Beach high school student Vanessa Hernandez long to realize that girls in her own school could be victims of sex trafficking.

Hernandez recently took part in a daylong program in Southern California by iEmpathize, a nonprofit that's teaching kids how to care and to speak up when they see any signs of someone being exploited. Hernandez was one of about 100 high school-age kids who packed a large room at a college campus one recent Saturday.

"I didn't know these things happen daily. I thought it was just like in movies and stuff," Hernandez said during a break about midway through the program.

With the anonymity of the internet, sex trafficking has become a lucrative business for gang members in California and other parts of the nation.


Nearly 3,000 human trafficking cases have been reported in California to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in the past three years. Most involve prostitution. And those figures may be low because the girls are scared to speak out.

Oree Freeman was one of those girls, which is why she came to the iEmpathize program in Long Beach to speak to the teenagers. Freeman came from a dysfunctional family in Orange County. She didn't feel heard. She didn't feel like she fit in. She was bullied for how she looked. So she started to search.

"And I was just looking for love in all the wrong places," Freeman said. "And so here comes this guy and pretty much tells me, tells me he's going to give me a better life. And that's not what happens."

Freeman found a man who seemed to be a father figure, who bought her things, who said he loved her. It turned out that guy was a "Romeo" pimp. He and another pimp used manipulation and violence to sell Freeman for sex in Southern California, including right across from Disneyland. Freeman was 11 years old.

Her personal hell lasted until she was 15 and met social worker Jim Carson, who works for the Orangewood Foundation, a nonprofit that helps older Orange County foster kids. Carson has worked with sex-trafficked girls for 25 years. He sees the same thing over and over.

"There is that night where he turns you out and that's when the beatings start. They literally will gang-rape you, they'll film you, they'll humiliate you, they'll beat you, they'll threaten you. And you're 14, 15, 16, 17, even 18, 19, 20," Carson said. "And they own you. They literally own you."

Carson helped Freeman get away from her pimps and became her mentor and the positive father figure she sought. Carson said human trafficking is the fastest-growing crime in the U.S., with an estimated three-quarters of victims coming from right here at home, not imported from outside the country. He said there are trafficking circuits nationwide.

"In the West, it starts from like Washington through Seattle, definitely through Alameda County, all over Oakland, and down through Bakersfield and in there, and then it comes through the Valley, L.A. and down to San Diego, out to Riverside and out to Vegas and through Texas," Carson said, pointing out that pimps are often able to move their victims from city to city to avoid being caught and prosecuted.

Carson said a girl like Freeman could bring a pimp a quarter of a million dollars a year, tax-free. He said gangs are turning to selling kids instead of drugs.

"Your product is reusable. Oree is reusable. I don't need to buy some meth, process it, sell it, buy some meth, process it, sell it. Eighteen different ways I can get busted there," Carson said. "Oree, I just use her and use her and use her, and I have the internet and I'm removed from everything."

Carson said part of the problem is people either don't notice or don't say anything, leaving girls trapped in what he calls "the life." Freeman’s pimp branded her when she was 12, tattooing his name in dark letters on her neck.

"Nobody said a thing to a 12-year-old, and she's out there 6 in the morning turning tricks, and there's 100 people walking by her, giving her dirty looks," Carson says.

That's where iEmpathize comes in. Many sex trafficking victims come from schools, but other kids -- like student Vanessa Hernandez -- don't know what's going on or what to do.

Musician-turned-social activist Brad Riley founded iEmpathize in 2009. The program began in Denver and has expanded to Los Angeles and other parts of the country. Recently, the San Bernardino Unified School District brought the program to its classrooms.

"Think about why crimes happen. If you were going through a hard time," Riley said. "If no one helps you or notices you, then you never get help. If you're in a situation where you can't help yourself, you need someone to notice that."

For the iEmpathize "Empower Youth" program, that means helping kids understand what it's like to be in a victim's shoes.

The program's Guido Hajenius hands out index cards to the group and asks them to write down four of the most valuable things in their lives. It could be their family or even their dog. One by one, Hajenius tells them to cross off items from their list.

"But let's say something else happens to you and you are forced to remove even the last item on your list. Go ahead and cross that out," Hajenius tells the group.

You can almost hear the room deflate. You're a teen. And you have nothing left.

This is what happens to victims of human trafficking, Hajenius said. The kids learn to respond, such as calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline if they see something. And they have a Q-and-A session with survivor Oree Freeman, who talks candidly with them about what it was like for her to get sucked into "the life," a life she struggled to escape.

Freeman, who is now an advocate for sex trafficking victims, drives home the importance of speaking out, whether you are the one struggling or you are the one who sees something going on with a classmate.

"It’s not that easy to talk to somebody," the 21-year-old tells the kids. "But if you can start now, I can’t tell you how amazing of a person or young woman or young man that you will be."

Adam Anderson, of the Long Beach Human Trafficking Task Force, helped organize the iEmpathize event.  He said it's important to focus on kids, even though it's a difficult topic to talk about.

"They're the ones getting propositioned online and after school and all these things," Anderson said. "They're a huge, missing part of the solution."

The iEmpathize program opened student Vanessa Hernandez' eyes. She said she spent time during the session thinking about whether there were any kids at her school that could be going through this.

"I think it changed my perspective on things, like, people that are going through this because I would think, like, oh it's them, like, they're doing this, but now I know that it's not them," Hernandez said. "They can't control it. So maybe I can help them."

If you see or suspect human trafficking, you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888. The hotline is open 24 hours a day and routes tips to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.