By Mary O’KEEFE
Today is St. Patrick’s Day and although it is often thought of a time to party the Irish way, the foundation of the day is to honor and remember a man who was non-judgmental and made certain that everyone was always invited to the table.
Los Angeles Country Sheriff Jim McDonnell is first generation American. His parents immigrated to America from Ireland. His mother is from Galway and his father is from Dublin.
St. Patrick’s Day is a time to think about the Irish ancestry, McDonnell said.
“[It’s time to think about] the proud tradition of the Irish and the sacrifices of those who came before us,” he said.
Because his parents are immigrants, he has a unique perspective of what it is to live in America and to be American.
“Everyone is welcome in this most diverse country of the world,” he said. “I look at our country and realize we all came from somewhere else, but all come together and, for the most part, work together in peace … everyone has an opportunity to hold onto our identity as Americans and our heritage. The two are not exclusive. You can hold onto your heritage while being a proud American.”
So when he sees new immigrants he recognizes the sense of wonderment of what this country has to offer.
But with all that America has to offer, there is still a side that is dangerous and preys on the innocent, and that is McDonnell’s real concern: the growing problem of human trafficking that is not just in this country but worldwide.
This week McDonnell released a letter to parents in which he addressed this frightening trend emphasizing education mixed with a strong dose of reality about the issue. His concern in particular is that of children taking nude photographs of themselves and sharing them online.
“What may have started as a copycat of an online trend is now manifesting itself as a nexus between our teens and the predators who seek to exploit them for profit,” McDonnell stated in his letter.
“Our young kids are being forced or coerced into [being] involved in sex trafficking,” he said. “Seventy percent [of those kids] are from foster care.”
McDonnell wants to educate the public about the reality of human trafficking. For some, the image created by film and television is that of a young college aged girl who had a little too much to drink at a high-end party. She ends up being drugged and then finds herself in a crate being shipped overseas as part of a harem. And there are stories of young women, and men, who are kidnapped and forced into the sex trade, but human trafficking is something that is closer to home. It could be a young girl or boy who feels they are alone in the world and a predator finds that vulnerability and exploits it. It is a young girl who takes a nude selfie, shares it via the Internet and, again, a predator finds that photo and threatens the girl with telling her parents, classmates, and friends – whoever she is most concerned about.
“They are kids from affluent [neighborhoods] to those in poverty. They may get to them in different ways but [eventually] they are taken advantage of through threats, coercion and drugs,” McDonnell said. “And there are also kids whose parents wouldn’t have any idea that [their child] would be involved in this lifestyle.”
Some of the kids are on the Internet, sending pictures, and are in chat rooms with people they don’t know.
McDonnell said the key to stopping, or slowing down, human trafficking is through education both for parents and kids.
“By being as honest and open as we can of what the risks are and what manner these people will use to do this type of thing [we can educate] so when someone comes at [kids] with an offer, they will know they are being set up. They will know how to protect themselves,” he said.
In 2015, the LASD Human Trafficking Bureau and its co-located partners in the L.A. Regional Task Forces on Human Trafficking investigated 519 cases that involved nude photos of girls and boys as young as 8 years old, McDonnell stated in his letter.
Year-to-date, in a two-and-a-half month period LASD HTB detectives investigated 81 cases involving nude and compromising photographs and videos of young children and teens on the Internet. Sheriff McDonnell said he is not surprised by the things he has seen and has learned since starting the HTB in November 2015, but he is alarmed by what he and his taskforce sees over and over again.
He hopes through this letter and with more outreach, kids and parents will begin a dialogue about this real danger and that parents will let their children know that open lines of communication, without judgment, is the best way to keep them safe.