When she was 12, Brianna Williams was a driven, young entrepreneur who wrote a 30-page business plan for her future party-planning endeavor. But by the time she was 15, she was being trafficked by a man more than twice her age and had forgotten all the dreams she once had of owning her own business.
“I know people have this stigma that human-trafficking victims come from a bad background, but I came from a pretty good background,” Williams said. She never imagined she would be sold for sex or that human trafficking was even something that existed in the United States.
“I knew nothing about it until it was too late,” she said.
Human trafficking has been a problem for decades in the United States, with California leading the nation in reported incidents. But only recently has the issue come to the forefront.
“I think it is like any of the crimes against people, like domestic and child abuse, it takes a little bit of time for people to recognize it,” said Carol Shipley, executive director of the Stanislaus Family Justice Center.
Experts say changes in state and federal law and people like Williams coming forward to tell their stories have spotlighted the issue, resulting in more government funding and the creation of nonprofit organizations to combat the problem.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 was the first comprehensive federal law to address the trafficking of people, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. It was five more years before California enacted its first human-trafficking law, which since has been expanded and beefed up with tougher penalties under voter-approved Proposition 35.
In 2011, Debbie Johnson, who founded the anti-trafficking nonprofit group Without Permission, held the first training in Stanislaus County on identifying the victims and the perpetrators of human trafficking. It was attended by more than 50 officials from local and federal law enforcement agencies.
“Thirty days from that training, we opened the first human-trafficking case in Stanislaus County,” Johnson said.
She said the issue gained momentum from there as she continued to train law enforcement in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. She said law enforcement would identify or rescue a human-trafficking victim within a week of the trainings during the first four years they were held.
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