Library trains employees to spot sex trafficking victims

The topic has been in the headlines, and it’s hard to ignore.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, San Diego is among the top 13 places in the country for sex trafficking. Young teens are the most vulnerable for recruitment, and often end up being victimized by perpetrators posing as boyfriends or caregivers. It’s a problem that requires a community-wide solution.

“People put blinders on and pretend that these things don’t happen,” said Misty Jones, Director of the San Diego Public Library. “But we can’t ignore it.”

That’s why San Diego Public Library (SDPL) is launching “Out of the Shadows,” a comprehensive sex trafficking awareness campaign that includes employee training, a teen mentorship program, support services and public resources. A $25,000 grant from the Rancho Santa Fe Women’s Fund, matched by another $25,000 from the San Diego Library Foundation, will pay for the campaign. Library employees at the Central Library and all 35 Library branches City-wide are being trained to identify the signs that someone might be involved in sex trafficking, and to provide resources and information about where to find help. It’s the only program of its kind in the United States.

“There is a serious problem and people have to recognize that,” said Jones.

Employee training was developed with help from the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, an alliance of government and nonprofit agencies in the United States and Latin America working to combat slavery and human trafficking. The training also includes a study conducted by Point Loma Nazarene University, which describes sex trafficking as San Diego’s second largest underground economy, after drug trafficking. The average age for a young person – typically female – entering the trade is 15 years old.

One specific story inspired SDPL to apply for the grant. Former Teen Services Manager Ady Huertas spotted a young teen sleeping in one of the study rooms in the Central Library. Huertas asked if the girl needed help.

“She looked very tired and kept saying she needed a phone to call her boyfriend,” said Huertas, who is now manager of the Logan Heights Branch Library.

The girl turned out to be a runaway and asked to use a phone to call her parents. Huertas describes the Library as a “safe space.” The public – people of all ages – are welcome to sit down, read a book, and enjoy peace and quiet. On any given day, a high school teen might visit before or after class, to finish homework or use a computer. Huertas says that’s why the Library is the appropriate place to provide information about a sensitive topic, and why youth advocacy is such a crucial part of the awareness campaign. The Library is working with San Diego-based Project Concern International to develop the teen mentorship program.

“Youth are being used to recruit their peers, that’s why it’s important for us to have advocates to raise the awareness, raise options,” said Huertas.

Collaborations with the City’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention and Human Relations Commission were also key to developing and promoting the sex trafficking awareness campaign. And, as Jones points out, the Library is uniquely positioned to provide those resources within San Diego communities.

“For me, that’s what libraries are all about, we’re that neutral place where people can have a difficult conversation,” said Jones.

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