Groups work to stop complex problem of human trafficking in Kern County

Human trafficking victim Candice Shepard speaks about the issue in Bakersfield, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX photo)

Human trafficking is a complex issue at its core.

Many community members aren’t aware of how pervasive the problem is and aren't quite sure what the term means.

Law enforcement and agencies have been working to curb its growth, but even that's proven difficult to estimate in number. California now boasts three of the biggest ports for human trafficking: Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, with pockets along the Interstate 5 corridor, including Kern County.

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The Kern Coalition Against Human Trafficking says more than 50 agencies in the county are devoted to facing this head-on, and the community has made substantial strides in recognizing an issue that community members once turned a blind eye to.

Michael Fagans of the Kern Coalition Against Human Trafficking says one striking misconception is that residents think the issue is purely international, and Americans are not trafficking other human beings.

According to the coalition, of the 55 cases that were reported to his agency in 2016, only 13 were committed by internationals.

The coalition says getting victims to seek help is the biggest problem. The coalition is now rooting its efforts in prevention, where it teaches individuals what unhealthy relationships look like.

They are also looking to thwart runaways from interacting with traffickers.

He is also teaching general members of the public how to notice a victim of sex trafficking on the street. They've been holding weeklong workshops at different workplaces to teach employees how to recognize telltale signs that a victim has been trafficked.

Fagans says three-fourths of the women he's spoken to on Union Avenue are not there by choice, and human trafficking is one of the top three fastest growing illegal crimes in the world.

The long-term damage left on victims leaves many in a trapped state of mind, where they have difficulty returning to a normal way of life or do not feel safe giving out information that could lead to their trafficker's arrest.

It's posed a serious problem to law enforcement, who relies on that type of information to build a case against a trafficker.

Numerous bills have passed over the last year in California, looking to better protect victims during trials and criminal offenses that may have happened during their time as a victim.

The Bakersfield Police Department says it’s only had three cases for human trafficking in 2016 and two cases in 2015. Sgt. Ryan Kroeker says they are hard numbers to analyze, because of the evidence needed to determine if a case is human trafficking-related.

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