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Fighting San Diego's 'Phenomenally Lucrative' Underground Sex Trafficking Economy

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SAN DIEGO – San Diego is known as one of the most beautiful cities in the country but new research shows it is also a hugely profitable area for human trafficking.  
$800 Million Per Year Economy

A three-year study, funded by the Department of Justice (DOJ), estimates the underground sex trafficking economy in San Diego County tops $800 million a year.
Co-author Dr. Jamie Gates, a sociologist at Point Loma Nazarene University, told CBN News, "it's phenomenally lucrative."
The DOJ trafficking study team interviewed more than 50 traffickers in San Diego and found most to be controlling between four and five people at a time, each who would make more than $100,000 a year.
Jessica Kim is a Point Loma graduate, but years ago, she was controlled by a trafficker in San Diego. "My stepfather was the trafficker and it began at the age of 12," she told CBN News.

How Trafficking Victims are Groomed

Kim says that when her stepfather came into her life at age 7, he showered her with gifts and began to build her trust by providing her with love and attention. He then began to take her away from her mother on trips. 
When the trafficking began, he convinced her that she was responsible for the family's financial stability. Kim says he would tell her "if you don't go to 'work' we don't get to eat today. If you don't go to 'work' then we don't get to pay for the rent and we need a place to stay."
Escape After a Year of Careful Planning

At age 18, Kim was finally able to escape but says it took a year of careful planning because she was caught on her first attempt and her trafficker had taken all her legal documents.
As an adult, she says she knew that she had been sexually abused but didn't realize that she had been trafficked until she went to a conference on trafficking with a friend and began to hear the speaker list the characteristics of victims. "I had a panic attack," said Kim. "I was so in shock – I actually had to get up and leave. I ran out of the building."
Point Loma's Program to Help Victims

A few years later, as Kim began to apply to colleges, she discovered that Point Loma offers a full scholarship program for trafficking survivors. She applied and was accepted. 
Kim, who recently graduated, says she's grateful for the opportunity for herself and other survivors. "I know that many of us – if the doors are opened – then we can step up. That's all we need – we need an opportunity to show our true selves."
Today, Kim is pursuing a master's degree in social work and helping to lead "kNOw MORE," an anti-trafficking initiative designed for high school students.
Gates worked with public schools in San Diego to develop the drama-based curriculum after interviewing area high schools for the study. Investigators found evidence of trafficking recruitment in all twenty of the schools they interviewed.
"We had plenty of example of victims who are being victimized while they were still going to school – so they were at school full-time and this was something that was being done to them on the side," said Gates.
The "kNOw MORE" curriculum centers around a live drama that features a trafficker recruiting students. Presenters encourage audiences to adapt and tweak the drama after watching it to change the outcome.
Kim says she wishes that she could have been exposed to the curriculum when she was in school. 
"If I would have had somebody tell me that what was being done to me was wrong – that there was a way out, that there are people out there that actually cared for my well-being, that were there to help--my whole life would have changed," she said. 
Kim Berry Jones, director of external relations for Point Loma's Center for Justice and Reconciliation, helped to create the scholarship that Kim received. 
It began as an effort to thoughtfully respond to San Diego's trafficking survivors. "We just kept hearing the same theme which is 'I want to go to college.' And it was such a pipe dream. It was an impossible dream for most people. And so it just was one of those a-ha moments that we sat around a small group of us and said 'well, that's something we could do. We can get them to college'" said Jones.
The Beauty for Ashes Scholarship fund provides not just tuition, but other supports like counseling for survivors.
Jones hopes that the program will encourage other victims who need support in their healing and restoration. "It says to all survivors – there are people out here that you matter to and there are people out here that want to help you find a new life."


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About The Author


Heather Sells covers wide-ranging stories for CBN News that include religious liberty, ministry trends, immigration, and education. She’s known for telling personal stories that capture the issues of the day, from the border sheriff who rescues migrants in the desert to the parents struggling with a child that identifies as transgender. In the last year, she has reported on immigration at the Texas border, from Washington, D.C., in advance of the Dobbs abortion case, at crisis pregnancy centers in Massachusetts, and on sexual abuse reform at the annual Southern Baptist meeting in Anaheim