Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson has announced that his office is launching a public awareness campaign to spotlight the prevalence of human trafficking throughout the county.
"Human trafficking is real in Contra Costa County and we have an obligation to not tolerate this type of modern day slavery in our county," said Devorah Levine, who oversees the county's Zero Tolerance for Human Trafficking coalition.
Billboards and posters bearing messages about human trafficking will be displayed over the next month above streets, at BART stations and bus shelters countywide to boost awareness about the growing crime.
The FBI recently identified the Bay Area as a hub for child sex trafficking, said senior deputy district attorney Nancy Georgiou, who heads up the DA's Sexual Assault Unit.
The prosecutor said she's seen a surge in human trafficking cases over the past three years -- from just four in 2011 to 32 in 2013.
Georgiou said the office has convicted all of its human trafficking defendants over the past few years. Ten more are currently awaiting trial.
Part of the boost in human trafficking cases stems from the growing law enforcement practice of distinguishing prostitution suspects from human trafficking victims, the attorney said.
But law enforcement also needs the public's help to combat the rise of highly lucrative human trafficking operations throughout the region, prosecutors said.
"It's vital that people start to learn about the dynamics of human trafficking," Georgiou said. "Look past the girl who's walking on the track, stop thinking its her choice and start realizing that behind every girl, there's a person controlling her."
Prosecutors say they hope that message gets out to community members who are often unaware that human trafficking is happening in their own backyard.
Many victims, a large percentage of whom are minors, don't know where to turn for help, said Melissa Caine-Huckabay, project director at the West Contra Costa Family Justice Center in Richmond.
"Often, home is not a safe place (for trafficking victims) because it is known to their exploiter," she said.
The Richmond center is one of several facilities in the county dedicated to helping victims of abuse, including sex and other types of human trafficking.
Caine-Huckabay said the center has helped about 30 victims of sex trafficking each year since the facility's 2011 opening. About half of those victims are under 18, and many were already sexually abused before being exploited by a pimp, she said.
Other local agencies that provide support services for human trafficking victims include Community Violence Solution, Contra Costa Health Services and the Contra Costa Crisis Center.