Orange County Tackles Its Human Trafficking Hotbed 

April 7, 2021 Updated: April 7, 2021

Visitors flock to Southern California for its beaches and sunshine, but there’s a darker side to Orange County’s tourism industry that law officials are working to combat: human trafficking.

Orange County has become a destination location for human trafficking victims, officials from the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force said during an April 6 press conference in Anaheim.

Orange County District Attorney (OCDA) Todd Spitzer said human trafficking occurs in Orange County “with such great magnitude” because of the large tourism industry.

“We’re an international center that people want to come to and vacation, and have conventions and recreate,” Spitzer told reporters. “And that same attraction also brings the people here who want to exploit and take advantage of sex workers and labor workers and people that are exploited because of the work that they provide.”

Milestone Year

This year marks the task force’s 10th year partnering with the Anaheim Police Department, the OCDA’s office, and the nonprofit Waymakers.

Its recently released 2021 Human Trafficking Victim Report highlights the impact of the task force’s efforts to combat human trafficking.

“Vulnerable populations are being abused, and it’s happening right here in Orange County,” said Michelle Heater, program director for Waymakers. “This violent crime is occurring in broad daylight.”

Ongoing Battle

Although the pandemic has brought plenty of things to a standstill during the past year, it hasn’t stopped human trafficking.

“Definitely the numbers dwindled, as far as visitors, but human trafficking continues to occur in our communities regardless of the pandemic,” Anaheim Police Chief Jorge Cisneros said.

The task force assisted 357 victims of sex and labor trafficking in 2020, according to the 2021 Human Trafficking Victim Report, slightly down from the previous year’s 415 victims.

The decrease was likely due to law enforcement’s limited ability to be proactive with human trafficking investigations and victim identification during the pandemic, the report said.

Of last year’s victims, 330 were women, 27 were men, and 101 were minors.

Pandemic Slows Prosecution

The DA’s office has prosecuted 773 human trafficking cases in the past decade.

The number of referrals for services made from prosecution was high in 2020, but due to the pandemic, the criminal justice system was slowed, the report said. Cases and investigations were unable to move forward at the same rate they did prior to the pandemic.

There were about 295 referrals made to victim assistance services in 2019 and 2020, the report said.

Support for Victims

Waymakers and The Salvation Army are the primary organizations providing social services support for trafficking victims.

“The two top service needs provided to victims of human trafficking have been case management and emotional support,” Heater said.

Waymakers provides human trafficking victims with such assistance as crisis intervention, emergency assistance, relocation, counseling referrals, and more.

Last year, therapy services increased for victims, which could be a result of increased mental health support needs due to the isolation and stress of the pandemic on victims, the report said.