Human trafficking’s youngest victims now have a dedicated champion in the county Probation Department.
Beginning last Monday, the department committed one full-time officer to cases involving commercially sexually exploited children and trafficked juveniles. The officer takes over for two deputy probation officers who’ve juggled those cases the last three years alongside their normal workloads and adds to the county’s expanding focus to tamp down these crimes, said Chief Probation Officer John Keene.
Keene, who joined the Probation Department last year, came from Alameda County with the idea of a dedicated officer in mind. March 31 marked the fruition of that goal which Keene said took about six months of restructuring to create the space. He’s funding the new spot out of his existing budget.
“I believe in this enough to put my money where my mouth is,” Keene said.
The officer will serve as probation’s representative on local and nationwide task forces while also handling the individual cases of young girls and boys who need to be treated like the victims they are rather than criminal perpetrators, Keene said.
It is estimated that 100,000 children nationwide are at risk of being trafficked annually. In San Mateo County, since 2011, the Probation Department has served 23 wards of the court who were commercially sexually exploited children. Of these, 12 admitted to being prostituted, three were charged with prostitution and five had other CSEC-related arrests.
Part of the county’s new push to combat human trafficking and Keene’s desire for a focused officer includes educating the public about who these victims actually are. Although the stereotype is often a female from another country, young boys also fall victim and 90 percent of victims of both genders hail from the United States.
“It’s not what you think of,” Keene said. “The more we can inform the public, the more they can help us get these young people back. The more we can emphasize these young boys and girls are victims, the more we can really attack it on a larger level.”
With the dedicated officer, Keene said his department is ready to deliver a coordinated response to cases that treat the victims and hold their abusers criminally accountable.
The majority of the victims aren’t even Bay Area residents but are instead part of a larger network of children moved up and down the state and even across state lines, Keene said.
Without counties connected and sharing information, it can be challenging to know just how deep they’re in.
Keene said one example was a girl who they found had multiple cases in multiple counties.
“What we found was staggering,” he said.
One challenge has been where to house victims. There are few community options, particularly for minors, and Keene said keeping them at the Youth Services Center is a matter of safety away from their traffickers and the environment in which they were exploited. However, he would like to see that change in the long term.
“I don’t believe the juvenile hall is the end-all, be-all to solve these problems. It is certainly not ideal and I’d love to see more safe homes and more local options,” he said.
But for now, San Mateo County is still on the more progressive side of tackling human trafficking, he said.
“We’re very fortunate here to be so further along in this conversation than in many jurisdictions,” Keene said.
In mid-March, countywide law enforcement joined U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, to announce a new protocol for human trafficking which establishes uniform guidelines for first responders, officers and anyone else handling the cases. For example, 911 dispatchers are to give human trafficking calls the same priority as other life-threatening incidents and mandates officers not consider the alleged victim’s citizenship.
Like Keene’s goal, the protocol is aimed at treating victims as such rather than criminals themselves and get them the medical care and social services they need rather than simply incarceration.
The protocol itself came on the heels of the state enacting legislation requiring informational posters in several establishments including airports, train stations, truck stops, emergency rooms and urgent care centers, farm labor contractors, massage parlors and adult stores. The multi-language fliers include information about trafficking and a hotline for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and the California Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.
Keene said the contact information on the fliers are the best option for reporting suspected victims or suspicious activity.
Looking forward, Keene also has a long-term vision for creating something akin to a safety net for these victims — both those who are still minors and younger adults who started out their path as trafficked or exploited children.
For help or to report suspected trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at (888) 373-7888 or the California Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking at (888) 539-2373.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 102