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Ten years ago, Vanessa Russell was a busy tech executive focused on her career, her family and volunteering as a dance teacher for at-risk kids. But after discovering that one of her students had been pushed into sex work and trafficked throughout the state for close to a year, Russell was spurred into a new kind of action.
Russell, herself a former foster child, tried to find a residential program where the young woman could rebuild her life, but was dismayed that there were few available programs. That prompted her to start Love Never Fails, a Dublin-based organization that today runs four group homes for people fleeing trafficking, and offers job training, counseling, substance abuse treatment and anger management classes. It also runs an IT academy and a cybersecurity training program where participants gain skills that can lead to a career in high tech. To date, Love Never Fails has sheltered 154 men, women and children escaping trafficking in the Bay Area.
“There is a direct correlation between inequality and poverty and human trafficking, and it’s going to take a community response to address that,” said Russell, who had spent more than 20 years in high tech before retiring in 2019 to run the nonprofit full time.
A common misperception of human trafficking is that it’s something that happens in other countries. But the Bay Area is far from immune, with girls as young as 10 often lured into the sex trade with promises of love, security and money from pimps posing as boyfriends, Russell said. And in a global pandemic, when so many have lost their income and poverty is on the rise, girls and young women are at risk more than ever.
Many women who fall prey to sex traffickers are sold and exploited through a growing number of apps and sites such as Instagram, Pornhub and Snapchat that allow pimps to connect with, lure and eventually profit off their victims. More than 100 cases of confirmed rape and human trafficking were reported on Pornhub last year, according to Russell.
“Women can set up an Instagram and do a nude livestream, and the money (is) going to some guy in New York while this 16-year-old girl barely has enough to eat,” she said. “It’s just one of the many ways women are being exploited.”
That’s what happened to a now 22-year-old Oakland resident who was lured into sex work by an older man she considered her boyfriend. The man bought her clothes, food and gifts, and gave her a place to live when she was kicked out of her parents’ home. Eventually he asked for payment — in the form of sex work. He began posting her ads on SugarDaddy.com and Backpage, a classified advertising website that has since been shut down.
“He put hopes and dreams in my head, saying things like ‘We only need to do such and such more jobs and then we can move to another state and just be together,’” recalled the woman, who asked to withhold her name because she feared being found by the man she escaped. But it was never enough and she remained trafficked for nearly two years, finally leaving when a friend from church intervened.
Today, after more than a year in one of Love Never Fails’ homes, extensive therapy and guidance from the organization, the woman understands that she was manipulated, and her insecurities and childhood traumas exploited.
“They helped me see that and get to the root of the trauma,” she said.
Now she is preparing to start her next chapter, although she is still terrified of running into the pimps who exploited her on local streets.
Love Never Fails also runs Project Look For Me, which works with law enforcement and community groups to search for missing children, and is part of a collaborative that helped write legislation mandating that every 7th, 9th and 11th grader in California be taught about human trafficking.
“I’m a fighter and I can’t stand people being abused and any disparity in how people are treated,” Russell said. “Every day I wake up thinking ‘Who are we going to shut down today?’”