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County task force targets human trafficking in the valley

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - Some call it modern-day slavery -- nationwide more than 600,000 kids are victims of human trafficking each year and the Riverside County is looking to put a stop to it.

The county's Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, which is a collaboration of the sheriff's department and Operation SafeHouse, joined forces with the community Wednesday at Desert Regional Medical Center to create awareness in the Coachella Valley.

"My whole family got caught up in this, I've been aware it's been going on in America and there's no one to turn to," said Sola Valkis, of Desert Hot Springs.

In the past two years, the Riverside County alone has seen more than 200 cases of sex or labor trafficking.

"I think that's part of it, getting over disbelief and facing the facts that human trafficking is happening here," said Jennifer O'Farrell, program director of SafeHouse of the Desert .

"As someone working for the school district, some of these are our kids being exploited," said Joan Boiko, of Palm Springs Unified School District.

There are some signs you can watch out for:

  • Kids selling candy, makeup, or jewelry in parking lots.
  • Accompanied by a controlling person or boss; not speaking on their behalf.
  • With debt owed to employer or crew leader; an inability to leave job.
  • Signs of branding.

"You usually see someone in a car waiting for them ... these kids have to make quota everyday," said Mary Battin, a SafeHouse spokeswoman.

"The people selling items can't provide information of organizations or charities they're selling items for," said Lt. Joe Anderson, of the Riverside County Sheriff's Office.

The majority of victims are between 18 and 24 years old, however the task force said it can happen to anyone.

"Our youngest has been 11 and our oldest survivor is 62," she said.

"We've had some cases where the family members sell their own kids into slavery," said Battin.

The task force said it's about getting the conversation started to prevent and prosecute for the crime.

"This seems to be a step in a good direction," said Battin.

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