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From chance encounter at the mall to being trafficked, a survivor shares warning signs for prevention

Human trafficking survivor Keelin Washington posing for a photo at Generate Hope's office in south San Diego County, Feb. 8, 2024.
Alexander Nguyen
Human trafficking survivor Keelin Washington posing for a photo at Generate Hope's office in south San Diego County, Feb. 8, 2024.

At 14 years old, Keelin Washingon was like many teenagers her age.

The San Diego native was into sports, playing volleyball and basketball and hanging out with her friends. That was until she met her trafficker at a Chula Vista mall.

He was 19 years old, kind and charming.


"He asked for my phone number and then one thing really led to another," Washington said. "We were texting all the time, we were on the phone all the time, and then before I knew, I felt like I was in a relationship."

But a relationship was not what he was after. She didn't know it then, but he was "love bombing" and grooming her. He was buying her things — new clothing and jewelry. She felt cared for and seen.

Washington was falling in love. Her friends praised it as a good thing because an older man was taking care of her.

"But those are like the conditions in which you become dependent on the perpetrator," Washington said.

After a three-month grooming period, her trafficker approached her with the idea of selling herself for sex. He told her he was behind on bills and needed her help, and it would be for a short time.


"I, like most people, just didn't believe that that happened here, right?" she said. "Like we're always told, 'It's a third world issue doesn't happen in the States.'"

The man she trusted told her she would be safe, nothing would happen to her, and it would be for a short time.

"So he introduced me to the life of trafficking here in San Diego," Washington said.

Washington's story isn't unique. Nationally, the average age entry for victims of human trafficking is between 12-14 years old. In San Diego, the average age is 16.

According to the FBI, San Diego is one of the 13th worst regions in the United States for human trafficking, with up to 8,000 victims per year. According to the San Diego County District Attorney's Office, roughly 50% of all trafficking victims are boys.

"With females, female victims are usually put on the streets," Washington said. "But I think with the boys that's also more online or it's more in a secret, condensed situation in area. Like the perpetrator is solely, selling this boy to his audience of buyers. Instead of like we put women on display for them to just be picked up."

Looking back, Washington said there were warning signs, but she didn't know what they were at the time. She became withdrawn from her friends, not doing things that she used to enjoy doing and started to miss classes.

"Those were some of the signs that we have to get in a space of investigating," she said. "I think the other thing that was important was, as parents sitting with our children and understanding really what they're doing. Because I think we try to give them autonomy in the space to develop who they are, but I believe that one of our primary goals as parents is their safety."

Washington said her mom didn't know who the 19-year-old man was but her friends knew, and they could have spoken up and said something. But not all teens are taught the signs to look out for or that they can speak up.

That's why she's sharing her experience at an event called A Town Hall Discussion About Human Trafficking in Vista on Thursday night.

She's currently working as a program specialist at GenerateHope, overseeing the recovery effort for trafficking survivors.

The town hall is a joint effort between Vista Unified School District and the city of Vista. Matt Doyle, Vista Unified superintendent, said the school district's role is to educate and keep students safe.

He said this town hall is an extension of that.

"Human trafficking, not just in North County, but the entire San Diego County, is a danger, and it's something that we should be a part of developing solutions that keep our students as safe as possible," he said.

The DA's office said it's difficult to say if rural North County is more susceptible to human trafficking because law enforcement does not track regional data.

Doyle said there have been cases of human trafficking in Vista.

"This is something that is disturbing to us as educators and, of course, to our partners in the city and law enforcement," he said. "And we're not afraid to have that conversation and bring it to the attention of our community, so we can all collectively work to eradicate this disgusting impact on our students."

The town hall goes from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Vance Community Room at Vista Civic Center, 200 Civic Center Drive, Vista, CA 92084.

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.