On Feb. 16, 2011, Debbie Johnson set up her first information booth and began educating people on human trafficking. Two years later, Without Permission, the organization Johnson founded, had already helped 434 victims and their families, and while that number gives her joy, she knows the road to ridding the region of traffickers is long and has just begun.
“As a community we have to take responsibility and rid human trafficking and the culture that allows it to thrive,” Johnson, who lives in Modesto, said. “If we don’t, it will continue to consume our children.”
The Department of Justice’s criminal code defines human trafficking as “a crime that involves exploiting a person for labor, services, or commercial sex.” The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and the Reauthorization in 2003, sought to give authorities more options for prosecuting traffickers, including filing charges under the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations statute. The act also grants more protections for victims of human trafficking and options to sue their traffickers.
In 2017, the Federal Bureau of Investigations initiated 782 human trafficking investigations and arrested 2,693 subjects. The DOJ reported it is a crime that happens in big cities and small towns.
The International Labour Organization, an agency of the United Nations, estimates that in 2017 there were 40.3 million victims of human trafficking across the globe. About 75 percent are women or girls.
Johnson’s involvement in combating human trafficking began in 2007 during a church event in Sacramento that included a presentation on human trafficking.
“What the speaker was telling us was the saddest thing I had ever heard,” Johnson said. “I walked out of there feeling mad and shell-shocked. I prayed to God and asked what do I do with this?”
For Johnson, the answer was to take action. She said she continued to pray on it and soon came to believe that it would be her calling, so she quit her job as a staff pastor at The House Church and founded Without Permission, which she and her husband self-funded through the first year.
Her first task was education, including law enforcement.
“It was September 2011 and I had recently seen three newspaper articles about three attempted abductions, but no one was talking about it as human trafficking,” Johnson said. “Then I realized they weren’t seeing it through the lens of human trafficking. Nobody was looking at it that way.”
She began meeting with law enforcement leaders and soon thereafter organized a training geared towards recognizing the signs of human trafficking.
“Thirty days later we had the first human trafficking case filed in Stanislaus County and we’ve never looked back since,” Johnson said.
Over the years Without Permission has led 270 events, trainings, and meetings. They’ve taken their presentations to 15 high schools, educated 930 minors at Juvenile Hall, and partnered with Stanislaus County Community Services Agency to host community trainings on tactics, flags, social media use, and brainwashing.
“It’s helped to create a collaborative response,” Johnson said. “Now we’re all rowing together.”
Johnson said people are generally surprised to learn that human trafficking is happening in this area and has touched nearly every high school in the region, both on the side of victims and that of perpetrators.
More human trafficking begins with a relationship rather than an abduction. The potential target usually meets the trafficker either in person or through social media and believes a real relationship is developing. In actuality, it’s a process called “grooming” in which the trafficker is luring their target with gifts, attention, favors, and sometimes a lavish lifestyle. The trafficker also is working to isolate their target. By drawing them away from friends and family, the trafficker is creating a dynamic that has their target more reliant on them more than anyone else. From there it progresses to manipulation, degradation and violence, whether real or implied and soon the victim is now part of the trafficker’s “stable.”
“They’re destroying people at their very core,” Johnson said.
Without Permission’s work goes beyond education and rescue efforts to encompass restoration and rebuilding trust with an emphasis on faith.
“It’s not enough to just remove them from the trafficker,” Johnson said. “Restoration is a long process. Human trafficking is the most intimate type of abuse. It’s physical, sexual, and psychological. Anyone can become a victim of human trafficking. These traffickers are masters at finding a person’s vulnerabilities and then using it against them. Often times the victims don’t know they’re being victimized until it’s too late. It takes time to correct that type of rewiring.”
Without Permission’s work of restoration is the focus of Just His House. It’s a home that serves as a day center for many of the human trafficking victims from the region. They offer counseling, group therapy, and outlets to help victims process their emotional trauma. It’s also the place where the simple act of trusting another individual is a significant milestone.
“We tell them that trafficking is not their life story,” Johnson said. “It’s just a chapter and our mission is to keep them writing new chapters.”
As a faith-based non-profit organization, Without Permission relies heavily on fundraising and donations. They will be holding their annual benefit gala on Friday night, Feb. 22 in Modesto. The theme for the night is “An Evening at the Derby” and will feature a night of Southern hospitality, a hat contest, a silent auction, a dinner, and horse races. Tickets and sponsorship opportunities are available at withoutpermission.org.
Without Permission also takes donations through their website, or by texting iamchange to 50155.