2016-02-26 / Health & Wellness

Nonprofit’s law enforcement fund helpsfight human trafficking

By Melissa Simon

PROACTIVE—Katie Rhodes heads nonprofit Forever Found in Simi Valley, which is dedicated to helping victims of human trafficking. 
ACORN FILE PHOTO PROACTIVE—Katie Rhodes heads nonprofit Forever Found in Simi Valley, which is dedicated to helping victims of human trafficking. ACORN FILE PHOTO Authorities are cracking down on human trafficking throughout Ventura County with the help of a special fund created by a local nonprofit.

The Forever Found Law Enforcement Fund was established in 2014 to finance proactive investigations that aim to identify human trafficking victims in the county and target sexual predators, said Katie Rhodes, local programs director for the Simi Valley-based nonprofit Forever Found.

The funds can be used to cover police overtime costs and to purchase specialized equipment—like high-end microphones and cameras to record evidence—for undercover operations.

But there’s not enough in the limited fund to help agencies add personnel specifically to conduct the stings, which is “probably the biggest need for law enforcement right now,” Rhodes said.

“The fund is filling a huge gap right now, but our hope would be that enough . . . funds could be allocated for actual positions (in local law enforcement agencies), and then this would just be to fill in the holes,” she said. “But this (fund) can’t be the solution to human trafficking in Ventura County. Law enforcement agencies have to have a way to conduct ongoing, sustainable investigations.”

First investigation

On Jan. 22, a Ventura Police Department sting paid for by the Forever Found Law Enforcement Fund resulted in the arrest of four men on suspicion of soliciting a minor for sexual acts.

Those arrested were Michigan resident Angelito Baylon, 43, and Ventura residents Jose Reyes, 30; Scott Starting, 62; and William Camp, 75. All four men have been released on bail, said Sgt. Denise Sliva of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.

During the sting, Ventura police posted an ad with pictures of a young-looking female on a prominent sex advertisement website, authorities said. An undercover officer posed as the juvenile offering sex in exchange for money, and the men allegedly made arrangements to pay.

Sgt. Jerry Foreman of Ventura PD said the undercover officer made it clear she was underage each time she was contacted.

“They had every opportunity to change their mind, to not do it, but they still did,” Foreman said. When the men arrived at an agreed-upon location, they were found to be in possession of enough cash to pay for the sex and were arrested, the sergeant said.

The sting was the first conducted with money from the Forever Found Law Enforcement Fund. But, Rhodes said, all Ventura County police departments, as well as the FBI, Homeland Security and California Highway Patrol are welcome to apply for aid.

“(The fund) is a great idea, and so far we’ve been able to purchase some equipment and get help paying for overtime,” Foreman said.

Aiding authorities

Forever Found works to prevent, rescue and restore human trafficking victims.

The law enforcement fund was started after a local couple, who asked to remain anonymous, attended a Forever Found presentation in 2014 and were inspired to donate $20,000 to aid in the nonprofit’s mission.

During that presentation, Ventura police Cpl. Dave Ruggiero had mentioned that no agencies in Ventura County were proactively investigating trafficking at the time because of a lack of funds. In addition, there were no officers specifically assigned to investigate trafficking cases.

Rhodes said the goal of the fund is to bring awareness to the fact that the issue isn’t exclusively international. The term “human trafficking” generally refers to the illegal movement of people, typically for forced labor or sexual exploitation.

“ The good news is most people in the world, in terms of sheer numbers, aren’t being trafficked,” she said. “The bad news is that it’s absolutely happening in every neighborhood in Ventura County—rich or poor— because it’s an industry.

“(Those involved) just cater to different clients, so the victims look different in every neighborhood.”

Foreman said many don’t realize the depth of the countywide problem because there aren’t any full-time units devoted to proactive investigations.

“(Human trafficking) is kind of an underground problem, like drugs used to be, so if (law enforcement is) not actively investigating, people aren’t going to see it as much,” he said. “But I think as . . . investigations get better and more proactive, people are going to hear about it more often.”

Forever Found hopes to keep the law enforcement fund going by continuing to collect donations.

For more information or to donate to the law enforcement fund, visit www.foreverfound.org and click on “Give.”

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