Organizers of two public forums being held in Santa Rosa this week on the ugly world of human trafficking know most folks in sun-drenched Wine Country would like to think it doesn't happen here.
But what state and federal criminal justice officials say is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world has a foothold in Sonoma County, just like it does most everywhere else, experts say.
Consider the July arrests of four men in Sonoma County during a three-day, nationwide sting in which three under-age girls, one of them local, were rescued from what authorities said was commercial sexual exploitation.
Over the past year, local law enforcement has made numerous sexual trafficking arrests, including a man suspected of bringing two Alabama teens cross-country, turning them out state-by-state and badly beating one of them, until police caught up with him at a Rohnert Park motel.
Santa Rosa police arrested a man in late August suspected of pimping a 16-year-old who first entered the sex trade at age 12.
"In most communities, people tend to think this is something that happens elsewhere and in other countries," said Chris Castillo, executive director of Verity, a nonprofit that provides counseling and advocacy against violence and oppression. "What people really need to understand is that Sonoma County is part of the trafficking circuit. Girls are brought here intentionally. They are sold here intentionally. And there's a market."
Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch noted that increasing sexual exploitation of young people, most of whom enter the commercial sex trade between ages 12 and 14, has put the issue squarely on the radar of state and federal law enforcement officials. Cases that used to be viewed as prostitution are more likely than ever to be handled as exploitation and the subjects as victims, not willing participants.
But it's not just in the sex trade, Ravitch said.
"We've got human trafficking in our fields; we have human trafficking in domestic settings," even in the marijuana cultivation industry, she said.
"It's really incumbent upon us to make sure people are safe, and that they are engaged in activities that they choose to engage in .<TH>.<TH>. because it's human slavery," she said.
Judy Rice, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights, which will hold a forum Saturday at 1 p.m. in downtown Santa Rosa, said the commission is hoping to attract parents, families, educators and others who need to know how young people are recruited and what makes them vulnerable to exploitation, sexual or otherwise.
"We want to take this out of the dark corners and say, 'This isn't pleasant to talk about, but it's something you need to talk about,'" Rice said.
Saturday's event runs from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel, 170 Railroad St.
The World Affairs Council of Sonoma County will hold a similar discussion Thursday night, Oct. 10, featuring a 30-minute film being distributed by the World Affairs Council of America.
The event runs from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday in Ingram Hall at the First Presbyterian Church, 1550 Pacific Ave.
Both panels will include local advocates and law enforcement representatives.
The events are free and open to the public.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.