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Human Trafficking: Out Of The Shadows
Debbie Johnson, CEO and Founder of Without Permission, explains the meaning of emoji symbols and how they communicate details of services and pricing regarding the interaction of trafficked girls and prospective clients. Jeremy Center/The Leader

Organizers could not have been disappointed last Thursday by the attendance or the passion of the community members who gathered for the second of a three part series presentation by Without Permission.

Hosted by River Oak Grace Community Church and Life Community Church, the not for profit organization aimed the evening’s discussion at the youth of the community, as well as those adults looking to become more informed and aware.

Close to 150 people including parents, grandparents, students and city officials, filled the Gene Bianchi Community Center to learn from Without Permission founder Debbie Johnson and her team.

“You’re about to meet somebody who would walk through fire to address this issue,” River Oak Grace Pastor Korey Buchanek told attendees. “An issue that’s dark, it’s ugly, it’s messy.”

The pastor noted it’s a topic which many in the church – and the community as a whole – would rather avoid. Human trafficking, after all, is a topic that makes the majority uncomfortable.

“You should feel uncomfortable because this issue is destroying lives left and right,” he said. “This is a global issue.”

As Johnson addressed the group she explained to the youth attendees that they were the focus of the evening, noting that the lessons of Without Permission are currently in five school districts of the 25 in Stanislaus County.

“There is no cost to the schools for us to be in the classrooms doing this prevention training,” she stated.

Guest speakers shared stories of their own personal journeys with the group. Among those sharing were a mother, whose daughter was persuaded and then trafficked by her boyfriend at school and a survivor who was trafficked by her own family with abuse beginning as young as the age of five.

A video presentation was also shared with the group of unidentifiable victims sharing their stories. Each of the victims, younger than 18 and each of the victims, from Oakdale.

Johnson shared letters written by freshman students who had been through the program, describing the students as grateful, empowered and informed.

“The next feedback is what do you do if it’s happening to you? What if you’re afraid to tell? How do you tell someone if you’re afraid?” she said of additional student inquiry.

Without Permission is a non-profit focused on helping victims of human trafficking. To date the non-profit has worked with and assisted 546 victims in sex trafficking. Eighty-five percent of the victims call Stanislaus or San Joaquin County home. It is reported that 49 percent of the victims are 17 years old or younger. Their youngest documented victim is an 11-year-old boy.

“Knowledge is power,” Johnson said to the youth in the room.

“The national entry age for human trafficking is 13 years old,” she added. “The work that we’ve done at Without Permission, for us, the average entry age is 16 years old.”

Johnson, the founder and CEO of Without Permission, made sure to emphasize to the crowd that this was not prostitution.

“Human trafficking the definition, a sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion. When you are talking about human trafficking, force, fraud or coercion will always be present,” Johnson said.

It was also noted that the Department of Justice cites three of the top 13 destinations for human trafficking are in the state of California, with San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego County among the top 13 destinations for trafficking across the country.

California also generates the highest number of calls for help. The Central Valley specifically is part of what they call “the circuit.”

“The Circuit is a series of cities that victims are moved on. Human trafficking victims are recruited and then they’re moved on,” Johnson shared.

The idea is to keep the victims moving so they are disoriented and not connected to others, also because of demand.

“What I want you to know today is traffickers target vulnerabilities. We all have vulnerabilities and traffickers target vulnerabilities,” she said. “Listen to me, students; traffickers always know their target. The target never knows they’re a target until it’s too late.”

Supporting this fact, the guest speaker spoke of the grooming process. The trafficker befriends the victim, gets to know them, spends time with them and eventually separates them from their family and friends.

“Traffickers aim to control their victim,” she said. “The advent of the internet has caused this crime to explode.”

Johnson touched on some highlights of the aspects of social media as well as gaming and how the predator uses the tools to learn about the victim, as well as build a bond.

The next public session in the Without Permission information series will be held on April 2 at the Bianchi Community Center from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.; that session will speak specifically to the topic of social media and being aware of what to look for online.

Melinda Murrett of Without Permission shares the story of her daughter’s trafficking with the attendees at the recent community event. Jeremy Center/The Leader