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Trafficking can happen anywhere

Maya Babow has lived a lifetime in her 22 years. As a 12-year-old student in the sixth grade at Kenilworth Junior High School, she was targeted by a sex trafficker who lured her away with false promises. Maya, who shared her story with the Argus-Courier, became one of the more than 300,000 children nationwide forced to have sex with people who pay to rape them.

Not only is human sex trafficking a form of modern day slavery, it is also big business. According to the FBI, it is the fastest-growing business of organized crime and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world. While increased enforcement is needed to aggressively root out and prosecute people who traffic in the sexual exploitation of children, there are plenty of lessons we can learn from Maya who has courageously decided to tell her story in hopes that others will be saved from the same fate.

In cases like Maya’s, it is easy to point fingers at adults who are supposed to be responsible for children. Why weren’t her parents more protective of her? Why didn’t Maya’s teachers notice a change in her behavior? In reality, however, human trafficking is able to exist, even thrive, just below the surface of normal, law-abiding society specifically because perpetrators excel at manipulation.

From Maya’s story, we learned that it wasn’t some seedy man in a trench coat that forced her into sex work under threat of bodily harm. Instead, it started when Maya was approached by a glamorous-looking woman wearing expensive clothes at a Petaluma Starbucks. The woman quickly earned Maya’s trust by showering her with compliments and promising her a career in modeling. Do you want the latest iPhone and fancy clothes? Then come along.

During a trip to San Francisco for a presumed photo shoot, the promises quickly turned into threats of violence and cruel psychological manipulation that lasted for six years, robbing Maya of her childhood as she was forced to have sex with hundreds of people around the Bay Area.

In order to prevent other children from falling victim to this horrific fate, Petaluma Police encourage community members to be vigilant for signs of sexual abuse.

Youth who are being trafficked often suddenly have expensive clothes or shoes, excess amount of cash and a prepaid cell phone. They display an inability or fear of social interaction coupled with anxiety, depression, submissiveness, tenseness and nervousness. the have unexplained absences from class and are often seen with an older male or boyfriend who seems controlling. Their behavior is sexualized and they have sexually explicit profiles on social networking sites. They may have new tattoos, which are often used by pimps as a way to brand victims.

If you suspect a child is the victim of sex trafficking, call the 24-hour National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

To learn more about what you can do to prevent child sex trafficking, consider attending a film and panel discussion sponsored by Petaluma Police and the Sonoma County Human Trafficking Task Force on Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Casa Grande High School, or on Feb. 21 at 7 pm at the Petaluma Library.

Forcing a child into sex work is one of the most despicable crimes imaginable. Somewhere along the line, the community failed Maya. Becoming educated and involved in anti-trafficking efforts will help ensure this fate never befalls another Petaluma child.