Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Public Safety

Safe House For Sex Trafficking Victims Opens In San Diego

Safe House For Sex Trafficking Victims Opens In San Diego
Prostitution is sometimes called a victimless crime. But the people who work with young women and men who've been sexually exploited have a very different story to tell. Law enforcement has identified San Diego as an international gateway city for sex trafficking and one of the 13 cities in the nation with the highest incidence of child prostitution.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Prostitution is sometimes called a victimless crime. But the people who work with young women and men who've been sexually exploited have a very different story to tell. Law enforcement has identified San Diego as an international gateway city for sex trafficking and one of the 13 cities in the nation with the highest incidence of child prostitution.

A new safehouse has opened in San Diego to provide long-term support for young women who are the victims of sex trafficking. We'll talk about the new facility and the ongoing effort to crack down on sex trafficking in San Diego.

I’d like to welcome my guests. Susan Munsey is Director of Generate Hope and its new safehouse and learning center. Susan, good morning.


SUSAN MUNSEY (Director, Generate Hope): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: San Diego Police Detective James Hunter with the Innocence Lost Task Force. And, Detective Hunter, thanks for being here.

JAMES HUNTER (Detective, Innocence Lost Task Force, San Diego Police Department): Good morning, Maureen. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And later we’ll be speaking with a former sex trafficking victim who’s not using her real name. We’ll be calling her Amy. So, Susan, let me start by asking you, how did you become involved in helping victims of sex trafficking?

MUNSEY: Well, several years ago I became aware to – I became aware that this was going on in San Diego and, as you said, that San Diego’s one of the top 13 cities for child prostitution. I was shocked by that but I was appalled to find that there were no services available for these young victims to leave the trafficking situation if they were able to get out. So I was working with a group of people from one of the local churches and came together with several different smaller groups, began attending meetings, and identified a group in Canada, a nonprofit agency, that has been doing this work for about 20 years and actually have a model very much like a franchise and we were actually able to spend the last couple of years training with them so that we were – are fully prepared to open our doors today.


CAVANAUGH: Tell us about some of the special challenges and resources that have to be made available for young women who are getting out of sex trafficking.

MUNSEY: Well, one of the issues is that 75 to 90% of the women typically come from homes where there’s been sexual abuse. So we have the double issue of the trauma from sex trafficking but then also the issue of child sex abuse. So we – we’re working with those issues and we’ll have classes in groups and individual counseling to work on that. Also, most of the victims enter trafficking, American victims, between the ages of 12 and 14, and that’s elementary school or just, you know, barely into junior high school. So they have missed a portion or a good deal of, you know, kind of the social training that we all get in those adolescent years, so we’ll also be working on social skills, relationship skills, communication skills, and then education. We have a wonderful young lady who’s put together a program for us that’s a little bit like a charter school or home school, and so they’ll be able to pick up wherever they left off and work on a couple of different subjects at once so they’re not bombarded…


MUNSEY: …with 7 or 8 classes, and move their way through high school and go on from there.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, why do you call this a safehouse? Is – Are there people still after some of these young women? Or is there a deeper meaning to that term?

MUNSEY: Umm. Well, there could be people still after them. Unfortunately, the fact is that it’s easier to just go on the streets and just get another young lady than chase after somebody that’s decided to opt out of the life. But we do want it to be a safe place. We want it to be a home, and we want each of the young ladies to have their own room and support, and we want to eat together and have a lot of the things that they may have missed out growing up.

CAVANAUGH: I want to start asking you, Detective Hunter, to tell us about the situation of trafficking here in San Diego. As I say, it is – the city is a high-intensity child prostitution and trafficking city. What are the reasons for that?

HUNTER: Well, what I deal with specifically and you have to kind of pull back from the term of, you know, the international trafficking, we’re talking about the actual trafficking which we deal with is called pimping, which is right here in San Diego. And the majority of the stuff that I deal with on our task force, which is the Innocent Lost (sic) Task Force, is dealing with a majority of – about 90% of everything that we deal with is going to be the local gang members. They’re going to be the pimps that are actually running the girls for prostitution here in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: And who are the victims? Who are the girls? Where are they coming from?

HUNTER: The victims are right here. They are – the majority of the girls, I will say, that we deal with on a regular basis are going to be anywheres from the age of 13 to, you know, approximately 21 years old, and they are a lot of times, you know, children that are from foster homes, broken homes, you know, girls that are involved in some of the group homes and then – But then every now and then you will get a young lady who is a straight A student, who has a great family background and just winds up getting caught up into the game.

CAVANAUGH: Now the people who pick up and exploit these young women, we’re talking, as you say, more about gangs than individuals?

HUNTER: Yes, absolutely. Like I said, about, you know, 90% of what we deal with for purposes of the ones who are actually coercing these girls into the life of prostitution are the local, you know, gang members here in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: And what about runaways? We’ve heard that young women who’ve run away from home, I know that San Diego tracks a lot of runaways. Are they also at a high risk of being exploited in this way?

HUNTER: That is an extreme high risk, within 48 hours of a girl running away, she has a good chance of being potentially procured into a life of prostitution.

CAVANAUGH: And how does that happen? What do – Do gang members actually hang out at bus stations? How exactly does that happen?

HUNTER: Well, it happens every single day. It happens out on the street. We have a main boulevard which is used for purposes of prostitution, which is El Cajon Boulevard, that’s no secret. In addition to that, they target the girls off of MySpace. Almost every single one of my investigations have started with or involved MySpace one way or the other. Your local shopping malls is an excellent place for them to pick up the girls or talk to the girls in a – in a different type location.

CAVANAUGH: And it would seem to me that it would be hard to make the transition from hello to, you know, do you want to go and basically become a member of the sex industry. How does that – how does that progression start? How are these girls exploited into this life?

HUNTER: Well, you’ve got – The easiest way to explain it is, for laymen’s terms, is the easiest way is you have two different type of individual pimps. You have what’s called the finesse or gentlemen’s pimp. He is the one who uses the mental manipulation and will actually talk to these young girls and make them believe that they are in love with him and that they are to do this type of multiple sex acts with strange mens (sic) for purposes of love for him. And then you have the other type of pimp, which is called a gorilla pimp. A gorilla pimp is someone who doesn’t – not really use those techniques but will actually use force or fear or violence to actually force that girl into doing what he wants.

CAVANAUGH: How much of the sex trafficking industry that you deal with in San Diego is – actually involves young women and girls from across the border as opposed to women and girls who are here in San Diego or who come from other parts of the United States?

HUNTER: Specifically for the number of cases that I’ve worked, I have not worked any that have been an international state. Every single one of my victims have been either local, from San Diego, or from somewhere within the United States, mostly either a border state or not, that have been brought here by their pimp for purposes of prostitution.

CAVANAUGH: Susan, would you bear that out in what you’ve learned about the sex trafficking industry here in San Diego? How much of it is domestically based, for want of a better term, as opposed to people coming in from across the border?

MUNSEY: I think the great majority are domestic trafficking victims. One of our new residents is an international victim and she has had a successful case against her perpetrator. But I think it is very unusual. I think that’s the area that draws people in. It’s, is seems, very exciting, and there are movies out about that. But actually when it comes down to it, these are our children. They’re just as likely any of our children, anybody that’s maybe had an absent parent figure or has had an abusive situation or is just hanging around the mall and has a fragile ego or sense of self esteem and they’re prime victims for the perpetrators that Jason was talking about. Sorry, Hunter was talking about.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, let me ask you. Well, first of all, let me move on and I know that Amy has been kind enough to come in and tell us about her personal story. I am speaking with Susan Munsey and San Diego Police Detective James Hunter. We’re talking about sex trafficking in San Diego and also the opening of a new safehouse from Generate Hope that is going to be helping a number of young women to make the transition from being sexually exploited into a new life. And, Amy, as I say, thank you so much for coming in and telling us your story. How were you lured into this life of trafficking?

AMY (Sex Trafficking Victim): I was introduced to somebody. I was actually at a bowling alley with some relatives of mine and I had gone outside for some fresh air and there was a man there and he became my boyfriend. He was a finesse pimp basically. And it was a long process. It took him about a year to get me to the point where I was involved with prostitution. It started out with very much a mind control type situation, taking the approach of if you love me, you’ll do this for us. And then it turned into this abusive, threatening relationship where he had, you know, possession of my car keys, of my identification papers, he knew where my family lived, things like that. And those were all things he could use to keep me at bay, and then physical abuse as well.

CAVANAUGH: So it switched. It switched over time.

AMY: Very much so.

CAVANAUGH: Now how long were you into this?

AMY: Two and a half years.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, when did that switch come in the relationship?

AMY: Like I said, it was about six months to a year after. I thought this was just my boyfriend that loved me so much and then that switch kind of happened. It took him a long time to condition me into it. It started with a conversation of, well, you know, when you’re 18 you could be a stripper and make lots of money. And I said, oh, well, if that makes you happy then that’s great. And he said, well, there’s more you could do. And I thought he was crazy at first. So it took – it took some time to get me to the point where I would even consider it. And then, like I said, it was something completely different.

CAVANAUGH: Was he always sort of like watching you besides holding onto your car keys and…

AMY: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: And how was he monitoring what you were doing?

AMY: I worked on the streets and I also worked as a high-priced escort. As an escort, he would drive me to my appointments. On the streets, he would drive the streets and watch me. Pimps have what they call pimping partners. They’re their other pimp friends and they watch each other’s girls as well. They know who’s who and the – so you have, you know, a double layer of kind of watching me. He could have his friends do it or he could do it.

CAVANAUGH: Now I’m going to ask you this because I think people might be questioning this as they listen to this. Did you have trouble at home? Would you say that you came from a troubled home background?

AMY: Uniquely, I came from an extremely upper class, loving home with – my mother was the leader of my Girl Scout troop. So I did not come from a broken home. I did not come from a bad situation.

CAVANAUGH: And so the question would be how did this happen? What was the mental key that he sort of turned in your head to turn you from your basic instincts.

AMY: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: I mean, you know, left to your own devices, Amy, I would imagine you’d never go near this life.

AMY: Right. And at that point in my life when I met him, it was actually a vulnerable point. I did have – my mother was sick at the time so she was absent from my life at that moment. But originally, growing up, I didn’t have any type of missing, you know, love or anything like that but then at that time, I was in a very rebellious stage in my life. I was missing my mother and having some problems that way. But there was definitely some insecurities. I’ve explored this issue for years…

CAVANAUGH: I’m sure.

AMY: …with different people. One, the one traumatic thing that I did have in my childhood, it was early pre-teens, I was raped. And that was something that happened with an acquaintance but it was a one-time situation and I do wonder if there were some self-esteem issues that were extended from that situation and that – and what had happened. So…

CAVANAUGH: I understand. Now the man who first got your affection and then turned into your pimp…

AMY: Uh-huh.

CAVANAUGH: …were you the only girl that he was running or were there others?

AMY: Umm-hmm. There was sev – there was – there was one. I had one wife – we call them wife-in-laws. I had one that had stayed with me for a long time and was there most of my time that I was there. And then we had at least six other girls that came and went, were recycled.

CAVANAUGH: And what about – were you able to keep any of the money?

AMY: Never. Never.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. How did you get out?

AMY: It was a series of events. But, believe it or not, there was a man who was intended to be a john and he became a good friend of mine, actually, and we never took our relationship beyond a friendship. He would spend time with me but it would be just to talk. And he encouraged me to leave the situation once he understood what was going on. And to make a long story short, it involved a high speed car chase with my pimp following us with a gun. And I was able to find out where a family member of mine was, and I was taken – and this guy took me there. And, you know, pimps will not continue a pursuit, it’s not worth the risk. So when I got to that family member, he understood that that was it and that I was gone.

CAVANAUGH: Susan, I want to ask you. This is a very harrowing story. Amy, thank you so much…

AMY: Sure.

CAVANAUGH: …for sharing it with us.

AMY: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, you know, Amy’s very young. The women that you deal with are very young. How long is it going to take them to get over this?

MUNSEY: Years. Our program is set up to support them for up to seven years. So we’ll have – This is our first house. But we’ll have three front-line houses where the girls’ll stay for six months to a year. And then into transitional housing and then subsidized housing where they’ll have apartments and we’ll be able to kind of subsidize them there and do the kinds of things that families do. Most of us get that support as we’re trying to step out on our own, especially in San Diego. But I think that it’s something that’s very difficult to heal from and I’m not sure that it ever really goes away. But we do get healing.

CAVANAUGH: Amy, what kind of remedial help have you gotten in order to get you back into the world that most of us share that doesn’t have anything to do with pimps and prostitutes.

AMY: Well, it’s actually been about six years for me now. I did do some counseling. I am very involved with my faith and that has been the most healing thing in my life, but primarily just getting a strong support system. I went back to school. I’m a small business owner now. So, really, the support system around me and, like I said, for me, personally, my faith has been the strongest thing that’s helped heal me.

CAVANAUGH: So would you, if you were talking to the young women who are in Susan’s home right now, in her safehouse…

AMY: Uh-huh.

CAVANAUGH: …would you tell them that there was a happy ending waiting for them?

AMY: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Good. I’m glad to hear that.

AMY: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I want to go back to you, Detective Hunter, because you mentioned this when I was talking to you about how people are recruited, how young women are recruited into this life. How does technology, how does the internet, play a role in the exploitation of women, of young women and children here in San Diego?

HUNTER: It’s huge. Like I said, just based upon, you know, my own personal investigation, I mean, MySpace is one of the biggest areas for recruitment of – from pimps to prostitutes that there is. In addition to that, you know, the multiple number of internet sites that are related specifically to prostitution and, you know, not to point out but, you know, you have – you have some that are craigslist. There’s one for City Vibe (sic) and Humaniplex and there are literally hundreds of them. In addition to that, too, the various, you know, pornographic websites where, you know, the pimps will go to actually post videos of some of their girls that they actually have had, you know, sexual relations with on the internet.

CAVANAUGH: Has that changed the nature of your job?

HUNTER: Absolutely, it has. Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: How do you monitor that now?

HUNTER: Well, as a unit within the vice unit within San Diego PD, we work both overtly and covertly so we work undercover every single week up on the street and on El Cajon Boulevard and there are other streets within the county itself. In addition to that, we also work undercover off the internet. So we will actually try and target or try and locate which we believe to be young girls or underage, juvenile girls that are involved in this lifestyle and try to, you know, rescue them in one way or the other out of the lifestyle.

CAVANAUGH: And, as you say, this is primarily the realm of gangs now, pimping out young women and girls. How many are them – are actually caught and prosecuted?

HUNTER: Unfortunately, very few. And the reason behind that is just mostly behind – is because of the victims. The victims have been – You have to understand, on a daily basis if not, you know, continuously mentally abused but also physically abused and believed – they are meant to believe that either they themselves will be killed or their family members will be killed by these pimps on a regular basis. And so when we eventually come into the picture, and sometimes that means by purposes of an arrest of a prostitute. We then have to take that time to gain the trust of them and that is an extremely difficult situation when someone has been made to believe that law enforcement is their enemy their entire life. So with the assistance of people like Susan Munsey and other organizations that we work with, we can take a different, you know, way of trying to help them out of this lifestyle besides just ourselves so…

CAVANAUGH: Now, if someone does not go into a safehouse, how – where do they go if they are rescued from a life of sex trafficking? Are they prosecuted?

HUNTER: You have three separate areas they can go to. One, is especially – and we’re talking about juveniles themselves, they can go home if they have a family that is respectful of the situation and who we believe they can be safe with. We have a facility here in San Diego which is called the Polinsky Center. They have the option of going there. And the only other option is going to be juvenile hall for purposes of an arrest or if they have no family to actually attend to.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Susan, let me ask you, your new safehouse, how many young women are going to be able to stay there?

MUNSEY: Three to four. It’s a drop in the bucket. I would venture to guess that there are about 12 beds available and very few for juveniles. It’s really a very sad state of affairs and it’s very much an issue of the financial need. It’s expensive to live in San Diego and so there are very few places for the girls to go.

CAVANAUGH: But I read that you do have plans to expand. You’re hoping to expand, is that right?

MUNSEY: Absolutely. Absolutely, yes. So if we’re fully up and operational probably 30 to 50 young women a year.

CAVANAUGH: And what – are you going to be also transitioning, as you say, 7 years. They’re not going to stay in the house for 7 years, are they?


CAVANAUGH: Well, what – what’s the idea of transitioning them back into education and jobs, I would imagine?

MUNSEY: Absolutely, yes. Yes, as I say, we’ll have the education program and they’ll go from the front line housing into transitional housing which will give them more independence, subsidized housing which will give them even more, you know, independence. They’ll be getting their California high school proficiency exam, they’ll be taking that and passing with the assistance of our tutors. And then we will also have job training and job shadowing.

CAVANAUGH: And finally, Susan, do you think that people, generally speaking, are aware of how big a problem this is in San Diego?

MUNSEY: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I see how shocked people are. And I actually see just sometimes people are just frozen. They’re really not sure what to do. Some people are shocked and turn away. It’s an ugly thing to look at. And other people are appalled like I was and just want to help, want to get in there and do something. It’s – This is a population that’s fallen through the cracks and it’s a shame, it really is. This is a fine city and we can do more for these young ladies.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you all for speaking with us today and, Susan Munsey, congratulations on the new safehouse.

MUNSEY: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Susan Munsey is Director of Generate Hope. San Diego Police Detective James Hunter, with the Innocence Lost task force, thank you so much for being here.

HUNTER: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: And Amy, thanks again for sharing your story.

AMY: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: And if anyone would like to post a comment, please go online, You’ve been listening to These Days. Stay with us for hour two coming up next right here on KPBS.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.