Task Force Update: Human Trafficking in Santa Barbara

Community Forum Addresses Numbers, Sting Operations

A county task force on human trafficking gathered at the Faulkner Gallery last week. pictured from left: Lt. Brian Olmstead (Sheriff’s Office); Lisa Conn (RISE); Rita McGaw (office of the District Attorney); and event moderator Jeff Shaffer (Home for Good).

Blanca Garcia

A county task force on human trafficking gathered at the Faulkner Gallery last week. pictured from left: Lt. Brian Olmstead (Sheriff’s Office); Lisa Conn (RISE); Rita McGaw (office of the District Attorney); and event moderator Jeff Shaffer (Home for Good).

As many as 150 teens in Santa Barbara County have been identified as “commercially sexually exploited children” (CSEC) since the launch of the Human Trafficking Task Force in 2013, according to Lt. Brian Olmstead, a detective with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office and a member of the task force. Last week, Olmstead sat on a public-forum panel with Lisa Conn, the project supervisor for Resiliency Interventions for Sexual Exploitation (RISE) Project, and Rita McGaw, who supervises the District Attorney’s Victim-Witness Program. The community meeting, held at the Faulkner Gallery and organized by Democratic Women of Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Central Library, discussed human trafficking countywide and the ongoing efforts to combat it.

The event began with a video of a teen who was rescued from human trafficking, which doesn’t happen often, according to the panelists. “Rescuing people out of this life is very uncommon,” said McGaw. However, the county’s task force is dedicated to reducing the demand for commercial sex and providing victims with counseling and other supportive services. But even these tasks have proved to be more difficult than anticipated, Olmstead noted. “The more we educate [the community], the more cases we identify, the more overwhelmed we get. We need more resources,” he said.

To reduce demand for commercial sex in the county, the Sheriff’s Office has organized a number of sting operations, with deputies posing as sex workers and arresting sex purchasers at hotels. Sex buyers are everyday members of the community, according to Olmstead. “They range from 18 to 82 years of age. They’re students, professionals, white collar, blue collar ​— ​anyone.” Traffickers are harder to go after and only receive an average of three years in prison, he added.

Counseling victims also has its challenges, the audience was told. Most victims in Santa Barbara County are female, identified through juvenile hall, said Conn, who has been working in the county’s Behavioral Wellness department for 20 years. She only started identifying victims six years ago, when she was educated in sexual exploitation. However, just because the terminology is new, doesn’t mean the problem is new. “This has been going on for a very long time,” said Conn, who still thinks about some of the girls who presented characteristics of a child being trafficked before she had the background to identify them as victims of exploitation.

Most of Conn’s clients, young people up to 24 years old, are from within Santa Barbara County. Older adults tend to be from out of the county, said Olmstead. Those victims are brought into Santa Barbara as they travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Regardless of where they are from, many have a hard time identifying as victims, said Conn. “Even children that we know are victims do not self-identify,” she said. A big reason for that is because of the shame associated with it. One way to combat that is by rebranding trafficking and stopping the glorification of pimps, said McGaw. “Is there a difference between pimp and trafficker? No ​— ​but one is glorified,” said McGaw. “Language is simple, and that is something we can all do.”

Editor's Note: This story was corrected November 27, 2018 to include the Santa Barbara Central Library as an organizer of the event.