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‘Constant barrage of pain and torture’: Petaluma trafficking victim shares story

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Human Trafficking: How to recognize, report and avoid

What: Free showing of “The Long Night” and a panel discussion with local experts.

When:

6:30-8:30 p.m. Jan. 10 at Mystic Theater at 23 Petaluma Blvd North

7-8:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Petaluma Public Library at 100 Fairgrounds Drive

6:30-8:30pm Feb. 7 at Casa Grande High School at 333 Casa Grande Road

Maya Babow thought her family wouldn’t love her if they knew her secret. She feared she’d be killed if she tried to escape.

The lifestyle was not a forgiving one – it was heavy with threats, abuse and a myriad of men and women who paid to use her body. Six years ran through her hands like water, robbing 12-year-old Babow of the innocence her young friends in Petaluma seemed to take for granted. It was hard to care about top 40 songs and Disney Channel shows when she was controlled entirely by a woman twice her age and made to feel like there was no salvation from being trafficked.

“I wasn’t allowed to eat, I wasn’t given anything to drink, I slept very little and they beat me,” said Babow, now 21. “It was just everything they could do to break me down and do what they wanted me to do. I was so discombobulated and scared and tired and hurt. I’d do anything for food and water … it was a cycle of men and sleep and being forced to have sex and people beating me – a constant barrage of different kinds of pain and torture.”

Babow, who was adopted from Vietnam when she was three months old by a Petaluma family, always felt a bit out of place. When a woman in her 20s showered Babow with compliments at an east Petaluma Starbucks in 2008, the attention was welcomed.

“She was really glamorous — you know how you look at people in college or people who are older than you and you’re like ‘oh my god, when am I going to get there?’” Babow said.

The woman, who called herself Olivia, seduced Babow with promises of a modeling career. Babow, then in sixth grade, told her parents she was going to a Hebrew camp in the city with friends as she accompanied Olivia to what was described as a photo shoot.

After she was outfitted with new clothes and makeup and taken to a house in San Francisco, she found herself on the set of a child porn shoot.

“I was scared,” she said. “The big thing people say is ‘why didn’t you say no or tell someone? Why didn’t you try to leave?’ The really big thing to remember is that I was 12. I wasn’t an adult. I wasn’t thinking anything like ‘oh hey, maybe I should go tell someone’ when someone’s telling you they’ll kill you or hurt you or hurt your friends and everyone will know what you’ve done and you’re not a good person.”

Babow lost count of the amount of people she was forced to have sex with that weekend, while Olivia told her that her family would hate her if they knew and told Babow she’d be forced to repay her for clothes, makeup and hospitality.

Her captors were careful to never harm her in ways that would be visible to friends or family, or that would devalue her for clients. She returned home and tried to forget about what had happened, but was forced to sneak out of the house to various locales for sex around the Bay Area. Babow’s parents worked full time, and when she started going to Valley Oaks Charter School on a reduced schedule, it became easier to slip away. At the same time, it grew harder to relate to her peers.

Human Trafficking: How to recognize, report and avoid

What: Free showing of “The Long Night” and a panel discussion with local experts.

When:

6:30-8:30 p.m. Jan. 10 at Mystic Theater at 23 Petaluma Blvd North

7-8:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Petaluma Public Library at 100 Fairgrounds Drive

6:30-8:30pm Feb. 7 at Casa Grande High School at 333 Casa Grande Road

“How could we have anything in common?” she said. “Being friends and keeping friends was hard and I became more isolated.”

Her life had already been checkered with trauma – she said she was molested by a babysitter at 5 years old, and then became involved with an older man at 16. Her parents tried to prosecute him when they found out, but the case was never resolved. She was hesitant to approach the police about Olivia and has chosen not to seek law enforcement’s help.

At nearly 18, she was exhausted. She watched her friends meet boyfriends and get ready for college while she feared she might not live another year.

“I just was pretty worn out and I didn’t want to do what she wanted me to do,” she said. “They told me every year that when I was 18, I was not going to be useful anymore and we could just kill you or sell you off to someone. I didn’t want that to happen.”

Several years later, she finally heard the definition of human trafficking. She opened up to her therapist, and has been featured in several documentaries. Last year, she told her parents, who were shocked to hear of the monsters that had consumed her childhood.

Now, she’s attending Santa Rosa Junior College and making up for missed time. She’s shared her story in Petaluma and Sonoma County classrooms, and will be featured on a panel at a series of human trafficking awareness events hosted by the Petaluma Police Department this month.

“Our community (needs to) become more aware of it, and talking about things like consent, and what trafficking is at age-appropriate levels,” she said. “It’s very important if you learn as a child that you can say no to someone, and you don’t have to do something.”

Cases of human trafficking are tricky to navigate, Petaluma Police Detective Sgt. Paul Gilman said. Often, calls for suspicious circumstances or routine stops will lead to an investigation – such as a case when a traffic stop for a turn signal violation led to the discovery of a 14-year-old victim. Using crude language, she said she didn’t need to change her life, until Gilman called her father.

“I said ‘do me a favor and call your dad to let him know you’re OK’ … for the first time, I heard what sounded like a 14-year-old’s voice saying ‘Daddy’ into the phone,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it ... it was a switch, a change in the process of getting her help and getting her out of the area to live with her dad in another city.”

Two years later, her suspected pimp was arrested in a sweep with the Richmond Police Department, Gilman said. But it’s not always so easy to catch predators, and the cases often take immense police resources.

“Generally what we’ll see is someone trafficked from a nearby jurisdiction for the purposes of having underage sex and that person doesn’t have a way out,” he said. “They’re stuck in the lifestyle due to separation from family and controlled through narcotics and stuff like that. It hasn’t increased in recent years, but there’s been more of an eye on it.”

Police focus on education, and rescuing young victims to help them rebuild their lives by connecting them with services. Statistics for recent arrests or numbers of cases were not available.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell, the chair of the county’s human trafficking task force, said his office isn’t currently handling any Petaluma cases. The task force, compromised of the Petaluma Police Department and other law enforcement agencies and nonprofits, is focused on a number of initiatives, including billboards, to cut down on trafficking, which can also include exploitation in the labor market. At any given time, the district attorney’s office will be working about 10 cases from around the county, he said.

“We’re basically very victim-centric,” he said. “We are trying to identify human trafficking victims and survivors and rescue them with wraparound services. The goal is to prosecute the offenses of human trafficking and pimping and pandering, but we’re also very active in the community.”

Genevieve Hightower, a human trafficking victim advocate at Santa Rosa-based rape crisis and sexual assault healing center, said traffickers often exploit the most venerable youth, playing on their insecurities. Gilman and Hightower both encouraged the public to be on the lookout for red flags, which could include school-aged youth with overly-flashy accessories or tattoos that could have been purchased by a trafficker, or young girls or boys seen frequenting hotels or motels.

“A lot of the time, traffickers go to malls, bus stops or public places where a lot of people congregate, or they’ll even go to schools,” said Hightower, whose organization is part of the upcoming Petaluma Police panels. “The older person knows how to manipulate and how to tell if a girl is insecure or has low self-esteem.”

Human trafficking, a form of modern day slavery, is the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprise and is estimated to be a $32 billion a year industry globally, according to the California Department of Justice. There are between 100,000 to 300,000 prostituted children in the U.S., and runaways and unaccompanied youth are most at risk, according to the Center for Policy Studies.

The Petaluma-based Polly Klaas Foundation, born from the 1993 abduction and murder of then 12-year-old Polly Klaas, handles about 3,000 missing child cases annually, according to Executive Director Raine Howe. About 85 percent of those are runways, many of whom have been lured by online predators who will later exploit them she said.

“We will never stop looking for missing children, no matter what the circumstances surrounding that missing child – but we also want to do everything we can to prevent children from going missing in the first place – education is the key to the sex-trafficking of minors epidemic,” Howe wrote in an email.

With that in mind, Babow plans to continue her sharing her story.

“That’s why I get out and do it – if it helps one person avoid a situation, it’s worth it for me,” she said.