OAKLAND — On any given night on International Boulevard, workers from the Victory Outreach Oakland church encounter more than a dozen victims who have been forced into prostitution. Many are victims of sex traffickers. A disturbing number are teenagers as young as 13.
The church sends volunteers to International Boulevard and San Pablo Avenue weekly to reach out to the women and girls working the streets. "We're just letting them know there's a destiny for their life," said Sylvia Vigil, wife of Victory Outreach Oakland's pastor.
"Basically they're all victims," she said during a Friday gathering in front of Oakland's City Hall organized by the church to raise awareness about sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation.
Friday's event coincided with the conviction of an Oakland pimp who was found guilty of kidnapping, raping and trafficking two teenage girls.
The conviction of Vincent Turner, 31, was a victory for advocates who have pushed for tougher laws against sexual exploitation and trafficking, as well as more protection of victims. Turner's conviction also signaled a get-tough stance that has made Alameda County a leader in efforts to crack down on sex trafficking. Turner faces a life sentence for kidnapping two teenage girls and making them work for him in Stockton. The county also seized his property and fined him $40,000.
"To have a jury come back today with that verdict "... shows that we have turned a corner," Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said Friday outside City Hall.
Turner's case is one of the 140 that have been prosecuted in Alameda County since mid-2006, according to O'Malley. Of those, 110 resulted in felony convictions. All involved minors and multiple victims.
Still, sex trafficking is a pervasive problem with roots that reach deep into societies across the world.
Oakland is the sexual trafficking epicenter of the West Coast, where pimps and customers have developed a widespread, high-tech trade in children and women. Oakland teenagers have been trafficked for sex as far away as Hawaii and Las Vegas.
"The laws not only hit traffickers in their pocketbook but have the potential to put them in prison for life," O'Malley said Friday. The money from the forfeitures and fines is channeled into paying for a variety of victim services.
The legislation, O'Malley said, also helps raise awareness and creates a structure for the organizations, agencies and caregivers to come together. "We are like the fingers on a hand. And once we wrap our hands around these kids they will not fall through the cracks like they have in the past," O'Malley said. "These are kids who have no one and nowhere to go."
The first step was changing the perception about sex trafficking. "When an 11-year-old is found in a hotel room, that is not a criminal. That is a victim," Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, told the crowd Friday. Swanson was behind at least two bills that have made it harder for sexual predators to operate. But the county still needs resources and volunteers.
"Please help. We don't have enough people out there," said Officer Jim Saleda, one of five officers in the Oakland Police Department's vice and child-exploitation unit. He helped investigate the Turner case. "Every guy put away is saving 10 girls," he said.
To report a suspected case of human exploitation and trafficking, call the Alameda County confidential tip line at 510-208-4959, e-mail HEATWatch-DA@acgov.org, or call the Oakland Police Department at 510-238-7911.