I am privileged to have grown up in Orange County. The widely affluent region of Southern California afforded me excellent public education, opportunities for recreation, and both safe and meticulously manicured neighborhoods to live in. The older I get, the more I understand my fortune to have been raised in a place that provided me comfortable communities to learn, play, and live in my formative years. I do not use the term “privileged” lightly to describe this experience.
And even then, my family was lower-middle class. If you could regard my neighborhood as a safe haven, I lived only a short drive away from certified fortresses, propped high up on hills in the towns adjacent to mine. Gated communities like Coto de Caza and Dove Canyon were — and still are — home to some of the wealthiest folks in the county. I also spent a significant part of my youth attending synagogue in Irvine — a city often touted as one of the nation’s “happiest” and “safest.”
But shattering any illusions people may have about the OC — glamorous beach towns and McMansions, to boot — just last year, there was a massive bust on a global sex trafficking ring based out of Irvine.
It is precisely Orange County’s wealth and affluence that have made it, in recent years, a destination site for the human trafficking market.
And the women most susceptible to being trafficked are those who already find themselves in compromised living conditions, such as having aged-out of foster care and thrust into homelessness.
Orange County’s prevalent underground trafficking issue poses a stark disparity to its facade of happiness and safety. While the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force has reportedly upped its numbers and trainings to continue to address the regional problem, there are other organizations spearheading the movement to directly care for the young women who find themselves transitioning out of tumultuous situations.
I got the chance to speak with Lauri Burns, founder and executive director of The Teen Project — a nonprofit that services the Orange County and Los Angeles County areas. It is their mission to rehabilitate young women ages 18-26 years old who have faced homelessness, sex trafficking, and drug addiction (and often all three simultaneously). Burns describes the organization as being “a parent to the parentless.”
She explains, “We take in girls that either left foster care without a family, or who never had a family and were living on the street. We give them everything they need to restore their lives back to the way they would be as though they grew up under better circumstances.”
Burns was driven to prostitution herself as a young adult and has an incredible story of overcoming adversity, which no doubt catalyzed her passion for fostering girls in need. After spending time fostering young women in her own home, she says she started the organization thinking, “We could help a couple of kids in our spare time on the weekend if we could raise some donations.” And raise they did. Within just 10 months they had $180,000, and are currently up to almost $8 million a year.
These numbers (thanks largely to the Project’s regular benefactors) finance their bevy of comprehensive services from providing clothing, medical and dental services, transitional housing, and drug rehabilitation to assisting with secondary education completion, vocational schooling, support in pursuing higher education, job obtainment, automobile matching programs, and reunification services for young mothers separated from their children.
They recently won a bid to acquire the former Boys Town compound located in Trabuco Canyon, CA — a property largely sought after by local charities. The private street with five houses will be renovated into housing specifically for formerly sex-trafficked women. It will be the first of its kind in the county dedicated to the demographic, Burns proudly states.
With a tendency for trafficking to only be widely regarded as a problem abroad — something that happens in foreign countries, not domestically in the United States, I ask Burns what she makes of this inaccurate perception. She transparently offers, “It’s different here. We have very wealthy, white men in the business world, the police force, and all kinds of unsuspecting people who are involved with sex trafficking rings in America. [They are] some of the most powerful people… and it’s not just one guy, a pimp you can take down — it’s a whole network of men with money and power. It can be dangerous, life threatening even, to try to confront those kinds of people. So what can you do to stop it? I don’t know.”
Burns laments not having the answers to dismantle the seemingly impenetrable networks of trafficking that exist, but she knows what she can do — provide resources for life after trafficking for the young women who’ve endured it. It is her hope that The Teen Project will become the prototype so that their model can be propagated by other organizations, in other regions of the country.
If you or someone you know is a victim of trafficking, there are resources to help. You can reach the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or by text at 233733. If you are interested in learning more about The Teen Project and ways to donate monetarily please visit theteenproject.com.
Rachel Cantor is a Brooklyn-based writer of articles, screenplays, short stories, bios, tweets, letters of recommendation, or anything else you may need her to write. Her interests range from film and fiction to politics and beauty, all through a sociocultural lens. Occasionally she’ll also try to make jokes, but don’t mind her.