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Global sex-trafficking summit calls on community to take action

Courage Worldwide, William Jessup host 'The Response'
By: Krissi Khokhobashvili, Placer Herald and Press Tribune editor
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To learn more about Courage Worldwide, visit www.courageworldwide.org.

Hundreds of activists, lobbyists, educators, law enforcement personnel and victims gathered in Rocklin last weekend with the same goal: To eradicate the scourge of sex trafficking.

Courage Worldwide hosted “The Response” at William Jessup University, a two-day seminar that brought together individuals and organizations to empower activism against the trafficking of children for sex.

Jenny Williamson, founder of the Rocklin-based Courage Worldwide, said that when she first heard about the issue of human trafficking, she thought she was the last person to know. But as she started doing research and asking questions, she found that’s it’s a huge issue that not enough people are aware of. Especially frightening, Williamson said, because the problem is not limited to far-off countries a world away from home.

“These kids are in our schools,” she said. “These kids are in our churches. These kids sare in our homes and they are highly vulnerable.”

And so Courage Worldwide began. Now international, the nonprofit provides homes and services (Courage Houses) for children rescued out of sex trafficking. Education is also a big part of the mission, and that’s why Williamson organized “The Response,” which gathered more than 60 experts to share their struggles and successes in the fight against sex trafficking, providing “tangible tools” for people to use in their professions and everyday lives.

The seminar included talks by Scott Edwards, chief operating officer of Courage Worldwide; former member of Congress and president and founder of Shared Hope International Linda Smith; and Laura Lederer, former senior adviser on sex trafficking in persons with the U.S. State Department and president of the Protection Project at Harvard University.

Monique Zackery, of Richmond, joined co-worker Phil Shay, of Nashville, Tenn., for the seminar through their organization, Abolition International, which is establishing an association of aftercare shelters that will help make sure there are standards for quality while survivors recover.

“There were some amazing people speaking, some great resources, throughout the entire weekend,” Shay said.

“One thing that I loved about ‘The Response,’ which is a little different from other trafficking conferences that I’ve been to, is that it is all about taking action,” Zackery said. “Everybody focuses on the fact that there is hope for change. There’s hope that this can actually be ended in our lifetime. I think that all of the speakers really rallied around that unity of belief. We don’t have to be bogged down by the problem, but that there actually can be a solution, and that everybody, no matter what their skill set is, no matter what their giftings are, everybody can contribute to the solution. We can all make a difference.”

Breakout sessions covered an array of topics such as community outreach, advocacy through creative arts, the faith-based community, law and policy, technology and mental health. The seminar concluded on an positive note, with a concert by Jars of Clay and other Christian bands.

Gracie Ditmore, 14, came to the seminar from Oak Park, where her parents run Rahab’s House, an assessment facility for girls rescued out of sex trafficking. From Rahab’s House, the girls are placed with families or in treatment programs. Ditmore said she was impressed by how many different forms of support there are for children recovering from a life of abuse.

“We just came from a workshop of musical therapy, and I’m actually looking into it now because I really feel like I can help with Rahab’s House in that way,” she said.

One of the experts who spoke at the event was Lt. Karen Hughes, who runs the vice unit of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department. Her department, she said, has been policing sex trafficking for decades. Since 1994, the department has documented 2,229 children who have been exploited sexually into prostitution.

“You don’t even have to know what you’re looking for to recognize that prostitution is alive and well in cities across America,” Hughes said. “Sacramento is no different than Las Vegas in that regard, and when you train law enforcement to be more aware of what those signs are, there’s going to be a more robust approach to policing it.”

Hughes spoke at Saturday’s session and Friday’s law enforcement training, where responders gathered in Citrus Heights to discuss the signs to look for and what can be done to stop sex trafficking. Hughes said that at-risk children are most often those with very little family involvement, those that have been deemed as “bad kids” and runaways. Fourteen percent of people arrested for trafficking in in 2011 and 2012 had gang affiliations, 63 percent of the victims were African American and 23 percent Caucasian, 92 percent of the victims were between the ages of 15 and 18 and typically the “customers” are married, middle-aged white males. But behind each statistic, she emphasized, there’s a unique story, and she’s seen it all.

“There is not one race or economic demographic that isn’t part of the demand,” Hughes said. “The wealthiest of neighborhoods and the poorest of neighborhoods seek the services of the commercial sex trade in one venue or another.”

The most important action law enforcement can do to confront the problem, Hughes said, is to collaborate with nongovernmental and private organizations, as well as with federal, state and local agencies: “Everybody has a piece of the big problem. It’s a very comprehensive problem.”

Williamson echoed that sentiment as she gave closing remarks Saturday, challenging all present to take a stand against sex trafficking. Courage Worldwide is a faith-based organization, and she called on the church to unite against the problem.

“If any one issue the church would speak the same language on and adopt – this could be over in our lifetime,” she said. “Do you guys want to participate in that? Are you willing to lay your life down for just one child and just one life?”

Williamson brought to the state a young girl rescued from a life of prostitution.

“Every single day of your life, you are in contact with victims, whether you are able to see it or not,” she said. “I hope now you have the tools to see it. I was in dance class. I was in Sunday school. I was at the mall. I was everywhere your daughter would have been. And I dare you to ask questions.”

The girl said she was touched by the number of people present at “The Response.”

“I have to tell you that looking around this room and hearing the thoughts of many, many educated, passionate people for the last day and a half, it boggles my mind,” she said. “Because, for 17 years of my life, and perhaps more than that, I didn’t think anyone cared. I didn’t think there were good people. I didn’t think anyone cared, and I certainly didn’t think anyone would take time on a Friday or a Saturday and talk about it like it mattered.”