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Joining forces to fight human trafficking

Carissa Phelps had not yet entered her teens when the nightmare began.

“I was 12 years old when I was taken on the streets of Fresno,” said Phelps, now an activist, author and attorney. “I was already labeled a runaway and a delinquent for survival-type crimes. I had been sexually exploited and raped more times than I can count.”

Eventually, with help from a sympathetic juvenile hall counselor, she survived and thrived—and now is a recognized leader in the fight to make sure other children are protected, not victimized, by the system.

Her cause just gained a powerful ally in the newly-launched L.A. Regional Human Trafficking Task Force. Created by L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell with partners including U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, the coalition is establishing a victim-centered approach to bring justice to those trapped in what’s been termed “modern day slavery.”

The new task force, established with a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Justice Department, is part of a national push to radically overhaul the justice system’s approach to how trafficking victims are viewed and treated. The movement seeks to transform even the terminology of a system that once used words like “child prostitute” to refer to underage victims of sexual violence.

The new team is committed to offering services and support to the victims, while seeking out and prosecuting the perpetrators. In many cases, these are gang members who’ve expanded beyond drug dealing and into the more lucrative field of human trafficking—where young girls can be abused over and over again, for profit.

The task force significantly ramps up the resources devoted to fighting trafficking. “When I came onboard at the LASD, we had only two detectives doing this work,” Sheriff McDonnell said in inaugurating the task force on November 19. The new group will have 80 dedicated staff members, including fraud, cyber and social media investigators, and will host personnel from agencies including the FBI, Homeland Security, the District Attorney and the Department of Children and Family Services.

In addition to fighting sex trafficking, the task force also will tackle cases involving exploited laborers, like survivor-advocate Ima Matul.

“I came to this country in 1997, believing that I would work as a nanny in Los Angeles. Instead, I was trafficked and enslaved in a home by a wealthy family in West L.A….I was physically and verbally abused almost every day,” Matul said. “My trafficker always threatened me if I ever left or escaped, that the law enforcement would arrest me and put me in jail, and there are bad people in jail that would rape me.

“At 17 years old, I was so scared.”

Matul escaped, with help from a neighbor and an organization called CAST, or the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.

Matul, who now helps CAST train other victim-survivors to become advocates, said the task force’s efforts are essential, given the magnitude of the problem.

“I’m only one story, one survivor,” she said. “But there are so many more in Los Angeles County that have a similar experience of being trafficked:  in a home, in a farm, a restaurant, hotel and the health care industry, and on the street.”