Filmmaker hopes to bring to light Bay Area sex trafficking industry

Leyla Gulen Image
ByLeyla Gulen KGO logo
Saturday, November 15, 2014
Filmmaker hopes to bring to light Bay Area child sex trafficking industry
War is being waged on an insidious and home-grown epidemic here in the Bay Area and across California.

ALAMEDA COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- War is being waged on an insidious and home-grown epidemic here in the Bay Area and across California.

A young filmmaker, who hopes her latest project will bring attention to the rampant and depraved industry of child sex trafficking, needs your help to make it happen.

The Bay Area is known for its iconic beauty, a destination for tourists and technology. But there's a dark side.

Every day and night commercial sex workers walk our local streets but, what's more disturbing, is that minors are being bought and sold in the underground sex slave trade.

In Alameda County, officials say Oakland is the epicenter for this activity.

"Little did I know, in my own high school, students were being sold for sex. And in my own community, and in my own neighborhood, kids were being sold for sex," filmmaker Melody Miller said.

Miller was raised in San Leandro and is a recent graduate of UCLA's film school.

"I wanted to do something bigger about the problem, in California in particular. I knew this documentary was going to be about child sex trafficking, but then it turned into the survivors because the survivors' stories were so powerful that I wanted to project their voices," Miller said.

Her nearly completed film, "California's Forgotten Children," was inspired by her own experience as a volunteer for Oakland's non-profit MISSSEY, an acronym for Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth.

Falilah Bilal is MISSSEY's executive director. "It's very disturbing, to be totally honest, just as a person, as a woman, as a mother. It's extremely disturbing that we have such a disregard for the sanctity and the sacredness of children," she said.

Each week MISSSEY staff help approximately 50 girls and young women. Many are referred through the Juvenile Justice Center.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley has been working closely with the center to end sexual exploitation of children.

"While we see an increase in reporting of human trafficking, what that tells us is that more people are learning about it and are coming forward and speaking out," O'Malley said.

Images are shown on East Bay billboards and bus shelters, but some parents object, feeling they are too graphic.

"If we have people who put those blinders on, who want to ignore the issue or say, 'Well those are just those kids,' then we're never going to be able to have one particular group or one agency help change the landscape," O'Malley said.

One Southern California educator defies all stereotypes. Rachel Thomas was trafficked while attending Emory University in Georgia.

"I felt stupid for having got caught up in this situation. I felt guilty," Thomas said.

Thomas is the daughter of an attorney and a deacon. She was voted prom queen and captain of the volleyball team.

She was lured into sex trafficking by a man posing as a modeling agent. Terrified, Thomas eventually came home to her parents.

"They put their arms around me and told me they loved me and told me there was nothing so bad that I could ever do that they wouldn't still love me and that God wouldn't still love me," she said.

Because of her experience, she's created a curriculum called "Ending the Game" for those who don't have the support system she had.

"These are our children and if we aren't the ones who are helping them, who are helping guide them, who are helping rescue them, who are helping keep them safe, then nobody else will," Thomas said.

One way to draw more attention to the issue is through the power of film.

If you would like to help raise awareness of sex trafficking, you can make a pledge to Melody Miller's Kickstarter campaign to raise money for post-production work on her film.

Her campaign expires on November 17.