SANTA MARIA, Calif. - According to the FBI, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego are three of the nation's thirteen High-Intensity Child Exploitation areas.
The Santa Barbara County District Attorney's office says that Santa Barbara County is a natural transit corridor for trafficking activities.
Members of the Human Trafficking Task Force say there's a large amount of referrals coming from Santa Maria and it's a bigger problem than you think, happening as we speak in our communities.
Close to 250 people attended an educational event in Santa Maria Wednesday to raise awareness.
“Someone my daughter’s age is getting trafficked in my town, five blocks from my house, how is this even possible," said Edwin Weaver, when asked what he's seen in the community when discussing human trafficking.
Weaver remembers how sobering it was when he was personally affected by human trafficking four years ago.
“First case we came across was a young woman who actually went to school with my daughter and all the sudden she disappeared for weeks on end, and she had been trafficked, and all of us were very afraid that she would end up dead," said Weaver.
The Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley Executive Director says that woman survived and is now giving back to the community and Weaver is also giving back, instrumental in bringing the Know More interactive drama from San Diego to Santa Maria.
“They’ve been doing it in the high schools, and when they do, they’re getting kids saying, hey that’s my friend doing that, my friend is behaving that way, my friend has that situation, and then the authorities are able to investigate and get that child away from the groomer or pimp," said Weaver.
Santa Barbara County Child Welfare Services say since January, they’ve received 56 calls to their Child Abuse Hotline reporting at-risk children or victims of child sexual exploitation in the county.
“At this time a lot of our youth they come to school, they have maybe an older boyfriend, or an older girlfriend who’s paying a lot of attention to them and their friends are like wow that’s so cool he’s buying you clothes, he gave you a phone," said Laurie Haro, Santa Barbara County Child Welfare Services.
Community agencies hope by educating our youth, they’ll be able to spot red flags and recognize the signs of human trafficking as it’s happening right here in Santa Maria.
"This is what our hope is, is that they’re going to respond with ew that’s gross, no you shouldn’t have a 30-year-old boyfriend or girlfriend, and no one should be buying you new cell phones or tablets," said Haro.
The Santa Barbara County Department of Social Services teamed up with Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley to bring the educational program from Point Loma Nazarene University to our area.