Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley was recently awarded the Modern Day Abolitionist Award from San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking (SFCAHT). During a recent online video interview, she told me about her involvement in human trafficking, her career, and her advice for young change-makers.
How did you first become interested in fighting human trafficking?
When I was a young prosecutor in 1996, I was assigned a case that involved a 12-year old girl who had been sexually assaulted and raped by a 50-year-old man. She started telling me her story and told me she had a 39-year-old boyfriend who took her out on the streets of Oakland and was selling her eight or 10 times in a night. When the police found her, the 50 year old man who had paid to have sex with her had raped her. That’s when I realized she was talking about trafficking. We didn’t even have a law in California then. That’s how I first learned about it.
I started getting a better understanding after talking to more girls. We started talking to girls in juvenile hall who had been arrested for commercial sex crimes and they started telling us, “ I’m 15 and I do this for my boyfriend.” That’s how I learned about human trafficking, but we didn’t even have a name for it then.
What are some common misconceptions or myths about human trafficking? What do you wish people understood?
I'm going to focus on girls, but I want to say that boys are being trafficked also, though they present differently to us.
The misconception is that these girls want to be on the street engaging in commercial sex. But what we know is that the trafficker has such a strong psychological hold over these girls, that there is no real choice there. They are coerced. The other myth is that these girls are making money. They are not. The traffickers aren’t their boyfriends. They don’t love them. They are using these kids like human ATM machines.
Some people still think that children are prostitutes. That’s the biggest misconception. Many years ago, we did a big billboard that said: THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A CHILD PROSTITUTE. When people think, “That’s just a prostitute,” they don’t have to deal with it or take responsibility for the children who are being exploited.
What I want people to know is this: These are children and they are victims of crime. These are kids who have had terrible childhoods that have made them really vulnerable to evil. Traffickers lure them into their web by pretending to love them, then manipulate them and coerce them. After all, that’s all anyone wants: to be loved by someone. I want people to know that it is the trafficker who is bad, not the victim.
The other part that people don’t pay much attention to and that I want everybody to remember is that when somebody buys a child for sex, the purchaser is just as guilty of human trafficking as the person who put them into that situation. And in our society, we still don’t treat those buyers as if they are bad people. We have good laws against the sellers, but not against the buyers. They are just as guilty, but just get a slap on the wrist
What has your team done to combat human trafficking?
Our team has written a lot of laws to build protection for victims of human trafficking and one of the strongest laws to prosecute traffickers. We’ve also advocated in California, in Sacramento and in Washington DC to make sure there are resources to help victims when they are separated from their traffickers.
We also have a big program here in Alameda County that we call HEAT Watch, for Human Exploitation and Trafficking. Some of that involves training law enforcement. We’ve also prosecuted a lot of cases. We’ve prosecuted more than 550 trafficking cases involving children. We make sure we have advocates there to support the victims. Even if they are not in the system and coming to court, we want to support them. We do a lot of work with policymakers getting resources and changing the laws. And then the last thing we do is educate the community so the community can be part of the solution of eventually preventing human trafficking.
One of the areas a team is working on is a therapeutic, safe home for girls who have been trafficked. The house is called Claire’s House. It is not open yet. It is a project of Catholic Charities, who has hired a Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) Coordinator and she is working on developing the policies, licensing and completion of the project. I also created Alameda County United Against Human Trafficking (AC United), which is now 50 strong. We work in sub-committees and housing for trafficked individuals, girls-boys, men and women, is one of those sub-committees. AC United is also working on getting education into all the schools. The law now says that all fifth-graders and up need to be educated about human trafficking and we’re working on getting the resources to do that.
Are there any anti-trafficking initiatives in other parts of the country or the world that you admire?
The Polaris Project is a great organization. They do a lot of data collection and research and they make sure we have real data to guide us.There’s another program called Shared Hope International. There’s another organization that focuses on getting hotel chains to take an anti-trafficking stance. There are a lot of initiatives. A lot of communities are working really hard to see what they can do.
I’d like to shift gears a bit and ask you to think back to when you were in middle school. What did you think you wanted to be when you grew up?
That is such a good question. When I was in middle school, I went to Catholic school. The times were different. I was always the strong kid, the community protector. If there were bullies, I was willing to fight them. But the teachers thought I had a big mouth, spoke too much, and was too bold. They didn’t always appreciate me. So part of me thought I’d never even graduate from high school! Later, in high school, I met teachers who were activists who recognized that I was an activist in my own way. They encouraged me to be strong.
Did you ever consider other career choices aside from the law, like being a judge?
When I was in college, I became a volunteer in a rape crisis center. It was one of the first ones in California. It was started by a group of women who wanted to help other women get through the system and process. It was not a good system for victims. It was all about blaming the women, shaming them, and making them go away. I realized that I needed to be in a position where I could change that. I wasn’t sure law was going to be it, but in the end and upon reflection, it was exactly what drove me to law school, to change the way victims of crime, particularly victims of crimes about which I was aware including sexual assault and domestic violence victims, were treated.
After I graduated from college, I was diagnosed with cancer. I remember thinking, “If I die, I hope my life meant something to more than just my family. But if I live, I want to make sure I am a voice for people who can't speak or the strength for people who need it.” So I finally went to law school. Up until then I had always said I’d never be a lawyer, even though everyone kept saying, “you really should be a lawyer!” By the end of my cancer treatment I was applying to law school. I spent one year after law school in private practice doing real estate law, and I realized I needed action and a cause. I knew I wanted to serve people. That’s when I went to the DA’s office, and it was the perfect job for me.
What can someone like me do to help? What advice do you have for young people who want to make a difference?
There are lots of different ways young people can bring awareness to human trafficking, starting with knowing what human trafficking looks like. Another area of focus involves educating community about human trafficking. There are a lot of people in the community who know the words but don’t know what that means. Here is what young people can do: There is a law in CA that says that certain businesses have to post a poster and include the national hotline and text numbers to report human trafficking. We have a lot of young people who do days of action with us and we even have a map app: https://www.map1193.com/. It is a web-based app that lists all the businesses that are supposed to have the poster. So if I go to a restaurant and I don’t see the poster, I push a button and that sends a message to my office, to the DA’s office. We can then let the business know that by law, they have to put up a poster or pay $500 for their first offense. Most businesses don’t put it up, so we have a lot of work to do.
A lot of the high schools that we work with have human trafficking awareness clubs and help with our days of action. They also organize red sand projects, where kids put red sand in the cracks of sidewalks and when people ask what they are doing, the kids can tell them about human trafficking and explain that it is real and it is really happening.
In terms of the bigger picture of life: Kids have a voice, a really strong voice. We have a justice academy with juniors and seniors in high school, and they always ask, “Who’s going to listen to me?” And my answer is, lots of people will listen. People might not listen to one person, but when there’s 10, or 20, or 100, people really start to listen. Look at what's happening right now, beginning with the students from Florida. They are leading the charge. Politicians and parents have tried, but it is teenagers who are going to change things around gun violence. Young people bring fresh ideas and information that can help make our world a better place.