The Yuma County Human Trafficking Coalition held a meeting Thursday that was aimed at raising the awareness of human and youth sex trafficking, and what services are available in the community.

Also discussed at the meeting, which was held at the Yuma Main Library and sponsored by the Healing Journey, was the topic of the risk factors of falling prey to trafficking. A special agent from Homeland Security Investigation was the main speaker.

“Do we have a problem with human and youth sex trafficking here in Yuma? Yes,” said Coalition Chair Estrella Fitch, who is also the executive director of the Healing Journey. “The bigger problem is there is not enough awareness that it is happening here.”

Fitch stressed the importance of educating the community about how the victims of sex trafficking are being exploited, adding that while there are no statistics, it is happening in more ways than people can imagine.

“I think education is the key to stopping this from going any further,” Fitch said. “Some adult women were trafficked as juveniles and they went on to be prostitutes.”

The coalition was formed in 2017 and partners with local law enforcement and other agencies to help raise awareness of the issue so parents and guardians can recognize the signs of trafficking.

She said that in many cases juveniles and adults who are trafficked for sex don’t report what happened to them because they think they could be blamed, they are afraid, or they are ashamed of what happened to them.

According to the HSI special agent who spoke at the meeting, children who communicate with strangers online put themselves at great risk because they are easy prey for internet predators. He explained that kids use social networking sites and messaging services, which makes it easy for perpetrators to target them, gather personal information, and make contact.

Online predators are also now using online computer video games such as Minecraft and Fortnite to target their victims.

“They tend to play the games of the age range of the children they are targeting,” said the agent, whose name is being withheld at the request of the federal agency. “These predators talk to them in their own terminology trying to befriend them and build their trust.”

Once the online predator develops a positive rapport with the child, the grooming process begins. In doing so, the online predator attempts to normalize the sexual behavior they are seeking. For example, they might send the child unsolicited explicit images.

The agent also added that a sex trafficker doesn’t have to be an acquaintance, or a friend. It can also be a family member. 

Here in Yuma there have been cases where migrants who crossed the border into the U.S. have reported to Yuma Sector Border Patrol agents that while on their trip here they were forced by family members to be with someone to get food and shelter.

The agent also stated that the Dark Web has made human and sex trafficking easier to conceal because sites are not indexed. It is very difficult for law enforcement to identify the illegal behavior.

“A lot of illegal activity is conducted there,” the agent said. “It is an internet within the internet.”

Fitch said parents should learn the possible warning signs of sex trafficking, such as their child continuously receiving calls or not willing to part with his or her phone.

James Gilbert can be reached at jgilbert@yumasun.com or 539-6854. Find him on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/YSJamesGilbert or on Twitter @YSJamesGilbert.

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