Foothill Technology High School

Prostitution in Ventura: not just in big cities and movies

A few years ago, Ventura Police Department (VPD) received a call from a hotel in Ventura. The voice on the other line was a 17-year-old girl who was being prostituted. She had grown up in foster care the majority of her life and she had begun being prostituted at age 14. She shared her story with police officer David Ruggiero of Ventura PD.

“In Ventura County you don’t find, for the most part, street-walking prostitutes. Not like in Pretty Woman or some place like in LA or in areas where you will see girls walking the street,” Ruggiero said. “In Ventura County it’s more hidden beneath the surface. So there is a lot of like online escort services, there’s a lot of prostitution in hotels, and then in a lot of massage parlors have prostitution activity going on there.”

Ruggiero became involved in investigating human trafficking when he learned about it through his church.

“I went to some trainings and found out that it is going on in California, in Ventura County,” Ruggiero said.

Detective James Langford of Oxnard PD has been a part of the Narcotics/Vice Unit for the past six years. Langford believes that prostitution is “quite prominent” in Ventura County.

“In this county we have street walkers, illicit massage parlors, prostitution related online ads, sex tourism, pimps, and human trafficking,” Langford said.

 

 

Anyone under the age of 18 in prostitution is considered a human trafficking victim because a minor cannot legally consent to sex, according to Penal Code Section 261-269. Men or women, age 18 and older, in the sex industry, which includes prostitution, pornography, stripping, webcam shows, et cetera, are often kept there through force, fraud, and coercion, which also is included in the definition of human trafficking.

What Ventura and Oxnard PD Does

In recent years, the Ventura PD has developed Vice enforcement, which is a team that identifies the human trafficking that is occurring and underage girls that are being prostituted.

prost4 652x1024 Prostitution in Ventura: not just in big cities and movies
Photo Illustration Credit: Carrie Coonan / The Foothill Dragon Press.

“If we’re not looking at prostitution at all we’re not going to find them,” Ruggiero commented. He is trying to work with the Ventura PD agency to establish more proactive Vice enforcement.

“So this year, more and more police agencies are doing proactive Vice enforcement and so that’s involving doing stings at massage parlors or lots of things on online escorts where we will contact a girl who’s working as a prostitute and then try and identify issues of victims of trafficking or not,” Ruggiero explained. “And then we also do the opposite side of where we set up a sting to arrest what are called ‘Johns’ who are the customers that are looking for prostitutes.”

A few months ago, Ventura PD conducted a sting that involved a female officer posting an ad on an escort site but identifying herself as underaged. When someone would respond to the ad, they would explain that she was underage. Several men still showed up to “pay her for sex,” and those men were arrested.

Ventura PD does not have a team designated to investigating human trafficking and prostitution.

Langford first got involved in investigating prostitution when he arrested a street-walker who was soliciting males for prostitution.

“Then I discovered a whole other side of the prostitution underground,” Langford explained. “From there, I began the investigations into the massage parlors, pimps and then discovered human trafficking.”

In the past six years, Langford, along with Oxnard PD, has arrested over 40 street prostitutes, conducted undercover massage parlor operations, and undercover internet stings. He also arrests pimps and men that hire women for forced sexual services, and has served dozens of search warrants at residential brothels where women were being held for commercial sex.

Langford, as well as Ruggiero, also works with Ventura County Coalition Against Human Trafficking (VCCAHT) to “combat human trafficking within Ventura County.”

“In this county we have street walkers, illicit massage parlors, prostitution related online ads, sex tourism, pimps, and human trafficking,” Langford said.

“There’s been some good change in our county in the last couple years, I’m really excited about it. The District Attorney’s office is really making this a priority but we still need more law enforcement resources dedicated to it,” Ruggiero said.

Once victims are identified, Ventura PD works with the VCCAHT, the organization Forever Found, and the Coalition of Family Harmony. Resource providers in the county are a part of theses organization, so the Coalition is able to contact other groups to help provide women with housing, counseling, clothing, and toiletries.

“The ultimate goal is to try and identify the victims who are being trafficked by traffickers,” Ruggiero said.

Massage Parlors in Ventura

In Ventura, there is an abundance of massage parlors; some are valid businesses, while others are brothels that have a face of a massage parlor but have behind-the-scenes prostitution.

“For the most part for legitimate massage parlors, most of the customers are women. At [illegitimate] locations it’s like 90 percent men that are going in and so that’s usually a sign that something is going on there,” Ruggiero explained.

Many foreigners are exploited at these massage parlors, particularly Chinese women, according to Ruggiero. In residential brothels, girls from Latin America are brought in and prostituted from a home.

 

 

“The hard part of trafficking is that most of these people have become victims because of really bad situations they are already in,” Ruggiero said. “So when they come in contact with law enforcement, most of them aren’t usually running into our arms and begging for help; they’re scared, they don’t trust police, maybe they’re scared of their trafficker, maybe not. Either way they are not usually cooperative in identifying themselves as being victims.”

Help after prostitution

Forever Found is an organization that assists women after they are rescued from a trafficking situation. They provide women with essentials such as housing, counseling, and clothing.

prost1 720x1024 Prostitution in Ventura: not just in big cities and movies
Photo Illustration Credit: Carrie Coonan / The Foothill Dragon Press.

Katie Rhodes is a part of Forever Found as the local programs director. She focuses on starting training and victim services in Ventura County.

Rhodes first learned about human trafficking 10 years ago through International Justice Mission, a faith-based nonprofit organization. International Justice Mission helps trafficking victims of both sexes, focusing heavily on South Asia.

“A few years ago, I started learning more about human trafficking occurring here in the United States,” Rhodes said. “[…] Piece by piece, I learned about all of the intersecting factors leading to trafficking: poverty, domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, cyber crime, undocumented status, homelessness, being in the child welfare system, et cetera.”

She then joined the organization Hope Rising, which focuses on opening a home for girls who have been victimized by sex trafficking. Finally, about a year and a half ago, she joined Forever Found as the local programs director.

Forever Found has five main components in their local services regarding prostitution.

Their training and awareness program teaches how to identify trafficking victims and how to work with survivors of prostitution. Forever Found holds free trainings for social services, churches, and other community groups.

Forever Found works with local law enforcement and service providers to attempt to change the current system to better identify and assist trafficking victims.

 

 

The Survivor Mentor Program at Forever Found takes “highly vulnerable” youth and trafficking survivors ages 12-25 and pairs them with two mentors to create a “supportive and loving relationship that will follow them regardless of their housing situation,” Rhodes explained.

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Photo Illustration Credit: Carrie Coonan / The Foothill Dragon Press.

Forever Found financially helps local police forces to conduct investigations that pinpoint trafficking and prostitution victims. Forever Found currently has memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with Oxnard and Ventura Police Department.

Within Forever Found, there is a small team of highly trained women who make up SAFE: Standing Against Future Exploitation.

“[SAFE] meets with vulnerable youth who are showing red flags for current or future exploitation,” Rhodes explained.

Forever Found is only one of many organizations that assists trafficking and sexual exploited victims.

Although cases of human trafficking and prostitution are not as prominent in Ventura County as they are in larger cities, there is still prostitution activity occurring. Ventura and Oxnard PD working to “combat human trafficking within Ventura County,” according to Langford.

In Ventura County, there is not a specific set of detectives assigned to investigating human trafficking, prostitution, or any type of Vice activity. Officers are assigned to investigate this area collaterally to their regular position. Ruggiero doesn’t believe this is the most effective way to handle the issue of prostitution and trafficking and “think[s] that [it] still needs to be the goal in our county, [to have] dedicated law enforcement resources that are proactively doing this.”

“I would just say that there’s been some good change in our county in the last couple years, I’m really excited about it the District Attorney’s office is really making this a priority,” Ruggiero concluded.

–Chloe Hilles

Background Photo Credit: Carrie Coonan / The Foothill Dragon Press

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