“We who believe in freedom cannot rest.” – Ella Baker
In January, during Human Trafficking Awareness Month, I had the privilege to talk with one of the foremost abolitionists of our time — Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley. As an expert in the area of human trafficking, she shared her perspective on the successes and challenges of protecting the public against human trafficking and what it takes to prosecute traffickers.
What one thing should people know about human trafficking?
It is exploitation. It is modern-day slavery. People don’t choose to be slaves. Sometimes people find themselves in those situations out of desperation. If that’s their only option to survive, is it really a choice? When we stop thinking that people are actually choosing this way of life, we’ll make headway in stopping modern slavery.
What led you to become a lawyer?
When I was in college, I volunteered in a rape crisis center and in a domestic violence shelter. These types of women-support facilities were very new in California at that time.
Through my experience, I witnessed how poorly the system treated victims of these violent crimes. When I accompanied women to the hospital, they were often ignored, or the police would cross-examine them. No one ever said, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”
In those early days with domestic violence, law enforcement disregarded victims’ stories. This pushed victims further into staying in their violent relationships and raising their children to repeat the cycle.
I saw myself as someone who could fight the system on their behalf. I decided to become a prosecutor because I knew that’s where I could make the biggest impact.
When I graduated from college, I was diagnosed with cancer. Chemotherapy was new, and doctors at the time knew little about how to treat cancer. I promised myself that if I lived, I would make my life mean something to other people. Obviously I was given the gift of life, and the strength to fight for people who didn’t have the fight in them. That’s what drove me then, and that’s what drives me now.
What was your earliest exposure to human trafficking in Alameda County?
In the 1990s, I wrote a proposal to the State of California for funding to focus on sexual exploitation of teen girls. My office received a grant to fund that program as a pilot. It was also my first experience in the county with what we know now as human trafficking. Our focus was primarily on adult men having sex with teenage girls and the commercialization of sex with minors. When I looked more closely at what was happening on the streets, I became acutely aware that we were looking at human trafficking.
There were no human trafficking laws in California at that time, and we needed to understand how trafficking was happening. While working for my predecessor here at the DA’s office, I created a dedicated human trafficking unit. That gave us a chance to focus on individual cases. It was then that we learned more about trafficked kids’ lives and how they became victims.
Many were abused by their families, or abandoned and homeless, making them vulnerable and easy targets for traffickers. Their traffickers took advantage of their traumas — they created bonds and trust with promises of love, protection and understanding. The kids believed the traffickers loved them, so they did whatever they asked, including putting themselves in extreme danger.
When law enforcement caught up with the kids, the system treated them like criminals: putting them in juvenile detention instead of providing proper trauma care and safe housing. Traffickers were left free to prey on their next victims.
How has human trafficking in Alameda County changed over the past 3-5 years?
The change is perpetual. In the past, government was largely responsible for working with human trafficking victims. Over the past few years we’ve seen a growing number of nonprofit organizations providing much-needed services, such as housing, medical and psychological care, and job placement services.
We’re also seeing a shift in how professionals across government, law and the nonprofit sector are working together to respond to trafficking cases and provide the appropriate victim services.
In 2015, I created H.E.A.T. Institute, a research-based think tank where multiple state and local leaders are creating a comprehensive system to respond to and prevent human trafficking. Through the institute, we identified various areas — medical, housing and employment, for instance — with a lack of protocols or proper training for handling human trafficking cases. For example, we’re working with hospitals to institute a system for identifying and supporting victims in a way that doesn’t re-traumatize them or put them in danger. We’re doing the same with law enforcement: historically, law enforcement’s response was to arrest victims. Now law enforcement protects victims.
Housing is also a huge focus area for us. Housing should be a place to provide support, genuine love and trauma-informed care. There is virtually no housing for trafficked juveniles, so even if they’re rescued, there’s nowhere for them to go. We are changing that.
I’ve reached out to faith communities who have real estate asking, “Where is the church in human trafficking?” The church is supposed to feed the hungry and house people in need. With 176 catholic charities around the country and the Pope making human trafficking a top priority for the church, the church is perfectly positioned to allocate valuable resources to help survivors recover. The Oakland Diocese has stepped up and we hope more will become engaged in the efforts to provide and help survivors. If the church staff gets the proper training, survivors will have a safe environment to get the care they need.
What new tools are you using to fight human trafficking?
There’s a law in California, SB1193, which requires businesses to post a flyer with the National Human Trafficking Hotline in a visible place — like the front window of a grocery store or a doctor’s office waiting room — so a trafficked person or someone who witnesses trafficking can call to file a report.
Most businesses are ignoring the law, so my office created the app MAP1193. This allows citizens to alert the DA’s office and report the businesses who are legally obligated to post flyers but don’t. We then send people out to make sure the businesses post the flyer. We’re also lucky to have a strong community of nuns in the county who are vigilant about visiting businesses in the community and reporting those who are noncompliant.
Businesses that don’t post the flyer have to pay an initial $500 fine, then $1,000 every day after. Our county is better than most at staying on top of this law.
Are there other examples of how the state legislature is working for change?
I’m pushing for statewide legislation to focus on purchasers of sex with minors. Without demand, there’s no supply. The proposed law, called a “luring” law, states that one who lures a minor for commercial sex can be convicted. We also created a fake website that looks like a commercial sex site. We receive 2,000 hits per month. With a group of male volunteers, we contact site visitors to let them know we’re the DA’s office and that we have their IP addresses. Then we follow up with information to help them understand the impact of their potential actions. The intent is to dissuade them from perpetrating.
We’ve also seen nationwide adoption of our program H.E.A.T. Watch, a 5-point plan to address human trafficking that includes raising awareness, identifying and responding to trafficking situations, prosecuting offenders, changing policy and providing survivor services. It was initially intended for local use, but once I started sharing it more widely, it became a blueprint for other communities to tailor to specific human trafficking challenges they face.
Have you developed any important partnerships to help fight trafficking?
In 2014, we partnered with Clear Channel to run awareness campaigns on billboards and bus shelter spaces. We’ve done them every year since, with a different message each year. This year’s message is: “Human trafficking is real and it’s here.” People are always sitting in traffic on Highway 80, so they can’t miss them.
We’re talking about human beings — if we tell people this is happening and sensitize them to the fact that kids are being exploited, the idea is that they’ll be less likely to marginalize them.
Where have you seen the most success in your fight against human trafficking?
One of the biggest advancements in the law is the decriminalization of victims. Instead of arresting them for a criminal act they’ve been forced into, they’re now recognized as victims. The second is that people who aren’t immersed in this work every day are starting to wake up to the fact that it exists everywhere.
Why is it hard to pass laws to protect children from sexual exploitation?
There’s a general acceptance of a man looking to purchase sex. Some of those men are specifically looking for minors. And, there isn’t just one type of buyer — they’re businessmen, lawyers, doctors — they come from all walks of life, and positions of power.
Secondly, until last year, the law grouped all sex solicitation under one law, penal code 647(b). Now, 647 is (b)(1)(2)(3) which separates the types of solicitation. The different types are:
- Adult sex worker soliciting to sell
- Adult soliciting an adult worker
- Adult soliciting a minor
Do you have an opinion about California’s sanctuary state status and whether it will have any affect on human trafficking?
It’s hard to say right now. We can’t keep federal law out. I was part of a group of elected prosecutors who wrote to the federal agencies to stay away from courthouses because that’s where people seek justice and they won’t if the feds are camped out there to deport people. We’ve seen this in domestic violence cases in other states. For example, a man who beat his wife called the feds and let them know she was in the U.S. without documentation and coming to the courthouse to file a complaint against him. The feds showed up and arrested her.
What is the biggest challenge your office faces in catching and convicting traffickers?
Getting survivors to stay around and go to court is our biggest challenge. For many – young and old – they live in a transient world. It’s easy to disappear into the fabric of society. Once the women get separated from their traffickers, many bolt. Many young people have no stable place to go back to and it becomes tough to find them to testify.
In 2008, I wrote a bill that became law in Alameda County allowing the DA’s Office to divert trafficked kids out of juvenile detention because they shouldn’t be punished for something they were forced to do. However, this makes it harder to find them because there’s no way to track where they go. We don’t support incarcerating kids, but when they were in juvenile detention, we had an opportunity to learn from them about how they got trafficked. Many have had no break in life — they’ve been exploited in foster care or by their families. They only know trauma and how to survive in the streets. There are so many examples of kids trafficked who came into the system as teenagers.
The other factor is immigration. It drives people underground because they’re afraid of being deported. We know people aren’t letting their kids go to school and they’re not getting medical care. Reporting of incidents drops. We need to coordinate better and communicate to this community that they can get protection while they’re here. The T-Visa and U-Visa are available to victims of violence and trafficking so they can stay in the U.S. We are very aggressive in signing these visa certifications. We don’t want people to live in silence.
What main message that you want people to know?
We need more policies to protect children. We need to target buyers and convict them. We need people to reach out with their hearts.
Are we doing enough? Are we reaching enough children? We can’t rest on our laurels. We need to be open to change, to constantly question if what we’re doing is working, and if not, we need to pivot quickly and not waste time deliberating. We have to protect our children.