BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Human trafficking and prostitution have long been an issue in Kern County. Through the years, officials have tried to keep the streets of Union Avenue and 2nd Street in central Bakersfield free from these crimes.
But starting in 2009, a local pastor began efforts to help victims here escape human trafficking.
One victim that was helped talked about her journey and how she hopes to now help others.
“Once he knocked out my teeth, it lowered my self-esteem so bad. Then on top of me doing meth, and on top of me being homeless, I just surrendered to it,” said Marianne Jackson.
It is that vulnerability and low self-esteem that made Marianne the perfect target for human trafficking.
Her life wasn’t always like this. At just 19-years-old, an abusive relationship led to her turning to methamphetamine.
That drug would take over her life for the next 25 years.
“It helped me get out of bed every day, until it started taking from me. It took my kids, it took my home, it took my car, everything. It started to take; it takes everything from you.”
Holly Peacock-Hickey, a Victim Specialist with the FBI says drug use goes hand in hand with the human trafficking industry.
“Drugs are one mean that the trafficker uses to control the victims, creating dependence and thus control. ”
Marianne said everyone she knew in her situation had some sort of drug addiction. In her case the drugs came first, and then the trafficking.
“It started with a boyfriend of mine, he kept talking about how these girls that were escorting were so much better than me, and that they had hustle, and I didn’t have any hustle and he just glorified it. ”
Manipulated and already struggling to survive, she found herself being trafficked, which specialist Peacock-Hickey said is common.
“Coercion, deceit, on the part of traffickers and convincing the victims that they are, in a romantic relationship or prosperous labor relationship when in fact they are not.”
After six months of having to give her trafficker half of her earnings for the sex work, Marianne’s trafficker was sent to prison for an unrelated crime. This meant, she had a decision to make.
“I continued to keep doing it on my own, I didn’t have anyone telling me what i could and couldn’t do.”
She said once she realized she was free, she also realized that was all she knew how to do, and willingly went into prostitution for the next seven years.
During that time, her kids, who had previously been taken away from her, turned 18 and she was able to reunite with them. Although the relationship with them was strained, it was actually her family that pushed her to leave that life behind.
That is when she met Pastor Dr. Doug Bennet with Magdalene Hope.
“We get to go and bring hope and love to these women, and if women want out, we have a phone number people can call. So, in the backpacks we give away, we have a phone number and cards inside with contact information,” said Dr. Bennet.
Dr. Bennett said since those efforts started in 2009, they have freed about 120 women from trafficking just in the Bakersfield area.
They go out to surrounding areas twice a month and say that a lot of the backpacks they give out are to minors around 15 to 18 years old.
Peacock-Hickey said they see a lot of minors, many who are or were in the foster care system.
Meanwhile, Dr. Bennett said they are now seeing the industry go online.
“So here our red-light district is Union Avenue, but it is moving online. Where on Union Avenue we might have 15 women over the course of an hour and a half, but online we can find 200 in Bakersfield for sale at night in our city.”
The faith-based program they have created offers these victims shelter in a safe house, as well as a car, and biblical college scholarship upon graduating.
Marianne who graduated last year, now has a great relationship with her kids, is working at the women shelter with the organization and said this was the best decision of her life.
She now wants to continue giving back.
“I would love to become a domestic violence counselor, just because I have experienced domestic violence a majority of my life. I would really love to help women coming out of domestic violence.”
The Magdalene Hope Organization took their efforts to Los Angeles to distribute backpacks in common prostitution areas during the big game weekend.
They have been doing outreach since the Thursday prior and you can follow their journey on their social media pages.
The FBI specialist explains many victims like Marianne do go back, which is why they work with local Kern County organizations to provide current victims here with services while they are still in that situation to slowly get them ready to get out.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline is (1) 888-373-7888 and is open 24/7.