HANFORD — Managing Deputy District Attorney Phil Esbenshade stood on stage Tuesday night at Koinonia Church and showed the crowd two pictures: one was a man in his 30s, the other was a smiling teenage girl.
Both of these people, Esbenshade said, were human traffickers who sexually exploited others right in this community.
The man was an airman in the Navy and he began a relationship with a teenage girl and eventually began sexually trafficking her and profiting from it. The girl was arrested last year after sexually trafficking four other teenage girls in and around Hanford.
Esbenshade used the pictures to prove the point that there is no stereotypical description of a human trafficker.
“I told you I can’t show you the face of a stereotypical human trafficker,” Esbenshade said. “If that doesn’t smash the stereotype, what does?”
“Human trafficking is a crime that is hiding in plain sight, it really is,” Esbenshade said
Esbenshade spoke at “The Fight Continues,” a community discussion about human trafficking that took place Tuesday night at Koinonia Church.
The night also included guest speakers Keith Fagundes, Kings County District Attorney; David Rice, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the San Joaquin; Jennifer Boteilho, program manager for Family Services of Tulare County; and Dakota Draconi, founder of Breaking the Silence and survivor of human trafficking.
Boteilho told the audience about services and relayed some statistics, saying her organization is aware of at least 602 human trafficking survivors locally ranging from 12 to 72 years old.
“It’s happening, it’s huge, it’s happening in our Central Valley,” Boteilho said.
Fagundes started the night off by differencing between human trafficking and smuggling. He said many people hear the term “trafficking” and think about people in big vans being taken from place to place and sold, not unlike illegal guns or drugs.
“Realistically, that’s all smuggling,” Fagundes said. “We’re taking about a much more dire situation, and it is human trafficking.”
He said in a human trafficking situation, the lifestyle of abuse is perpetual and hard to overcome for victims.
Esbenshade has prosecuted cases for over a decade and is considered an expert in human trafficking, domestic violence and sexual assault across the state. Fagundes said Esbenshade has been instrumental in moving the county forward on issues involving human trafficking and sexual abuse.
Esbenshade said it’s important for people to change the lens in which they look at human trafficking. He said trafficking isn’t just a crime, it’s a fundamental violation of the basic human rights we all have.
From a legal stance, Esbenshade said human trafficking does not have to involve movement.
“A person can be trafficked from their bedroom and never leave,” Esbenshade said. “That probably surprises a lot of people. You could be trafficked in your own hometown; you don’t need to cross one state line, you don’t need to cross one city border to be trafficked.”
Esbenshade said the area that most concerns him and Fagundes is commercial sexual exploitation of children, which happens all over the country and is where children are trafficked and sold sexually.
Just as there is no stereotypical trafficker, Esbenshade said there is no stereotypical victim. He did say, however, that there are commonalities between victims, including vulnerabilities like trouble at home, substance abuse issues, parental issues or domestic violence.
“There are people out there that want to steal the honor and the dignity of our children, and if that’s not bad enough, they want to do it for money,” Esbenshade said. “This is a situation that is so bad it calls for more than concern; it calls for action.”
Esbenshade said it’s up to everyone to help spot these situations and speak up.
Rice said most people may not understand what human trafficking is, and even if they do, they don’t know what they can do to help.
“The number of people it takes to change the world is the number of people we have,” Rice said. “The number of people we have in this space this evening, we can change this world of that which I speak. We can do that with our prayers, with our feet, with our hands, with our hearts, with our minds, with our pockets.”
Rice said attitudes and behaviors also need to be changed because the crime and the victims are connected to everyone. He said it is time for people to acknowledge that they are responsible for changing the world and that there is still much work that needs to be done concerning human trafficking.
“I am heartened by occasions like this [where] people come together to keep these discussions going to acknowledge the fight has to continue,” Rice said. “Because, quite frankly, we’ve only started.”
Esbenshade said the fight against human trafficking starts with aggressive investigation and aggressive prosecution, and ends with organizations collaborating and providing services to the survivors. Fagundes said the many organizations that came together to put the event on are willing and ready to help anyone in need.
“The folks in our community take this issue very seriously, and it’s one that needs our attention,” Fagundes said.