When you think of Orange County, images of luxurious sports cars, designer clothing, pristine public roads, and large shopping malls may come to mind, but does human trafficking? I’m going to assume the answer is “no”, as that is what mine would have been prior to an interview like the one you are about to read.
Today’s post will share the interview I had with Michael Baroni, an established professional from the Orange County area, and his involvement in combating the severe human trafficking issue in Orange County. While he is different from a typical interviewee, in that he is not a direct victim or witness of human rights violations, his life is dedicated to countering and suppressing such violations; therefore, he can give us a very unique standpoint on human rights issues like these.
I came in contact with Michael in an odd way. My elementary school teacher, who I know as Mrs. Ingrassia, follows this project and notified me that her daughter, Dana Heyde, serves on the Orange County Bar Association’s Human Trafficking Task Force. I have Dana to thank for connecting me with Michael, who founded the Task Force as one of his initiatives as this year’s Bar President. And Dana is one of the Task Force’s founding committee members! I cannot emphasize enough what a small, interconnected world we live in, and how easily accessible these issues are. It’s both intriguing and upsetting. Anyhow, it was a real honor to meet with Michael, all of his professionalism and success considered.
Michael currently works at Palace Entertainment, one of the world’s largest amusement park companies, but he has a past as a lawyer who hopped among different companies for his entire career. Throughout his whole life, Michael has been inspired to maintain and uphold justice in society, and has certainly done so as President of the Orange County Bar Association and founder of that organization’s Human Trafficking Force. From my interview with Michael I learned not only that human trafficking horrors plague an area of the country I would least expect, but also that the amount of influence one individual can have on an issue can be immense if one sets his mind to it.
A Bar Association like the one Michael figureheads is a sort of “club” of lawyers from all branches of specialized work that congregate voluntarily to enhance the legal and justice systems, and combat different issues in society. Michael stated that the Bar in OC has 9,000 members and serving as President very often acts as second job. But instead of me describing Michael and his work, let’s hear from him.
Before getting into fine detail, below is a compilation of Michael’s words which broadly summarizes what he told me about his life, his passion, and his work:
“I’m from New York City, so I grew up there and came out to California about fifteen years ago. One of the things that really struck me about New York growing up in the 1970s was very rough neighborhoods, a lot of filth, a lot of gangs and muggers and that kind of thing. And I think from an early age I was really attracted to law enforcement and wanted to honor and support law enforcement, and that’s carried through a lot of my career. So, once I got to California I got very active in the Bar Association… I’ve tended to gravitate toward the justice system and law enforcement, and also with victims rights and humans rights issues, because I’ve just been innately disgusted by watching people get victimized by criminals. It’s always bothered me, it’s always deeply bothered me to see people get abused by other people. Over the years I’ve become very friendly with law enforcement here in O.C., including the Sheriff, numerous police chiefs, and with my dear friend Susan Kang Schroeder [Chief of Staff] at the District Attorneys office, who is a champion of victims rights here in O.C. and nationally. And, when I found out that we had a human trafficking issue here in Orange County, that was something that completely surprised me. I would have thought that it would be a very limited instance, maybe in a couple seedy motels in a bad neighborhood. But it’s something that’s actually very prevalent and we’re kind of an epicenter in the U.S. My background has always been working in companies, I’ve never worked in a law firm, so I’m one of the few lawyers that always worked at companies (as opposed to law firms). I started out in book publishing, magazine publishing, and Internet infrastructure, working at a giant German manufacturer, and now Palace Entertainment… And I also love to write. I’ve done over one hundred articles; mostly that’s because whenever there’s an issue like human trafficking, or gang prevention, to me one of the best things you can do with it is to obviously go out and talk to people about it, but it’s also to write something…[an article] can be passed out to people and kept, and people can refer to it.
The biggest problem with human trafficking it is that it’s so lucrative for the criminals; they can make about $250,000 a year off of one girl. That’s horrifying, right? When you realize the numbers like that, you realize why… there’s an endless stream of pimps wanting to bring girls to O.C., and they’re actually buying or renting luxury condos or homes in places like Newport Beach or Irvine, where they might have ten to fifteen girls in one location, where people can come visit, and nobody would never look at it and think something’s wrong… If you’re in a busy area, and there are men in luxury cars driving up and going to an apartment, people might not put it together unless you see a huge volume of people coming in and out of a place. You know, once people see a huge volume, then they might call the police. But [human trafficking] is too easy to hide… The other problem is that, at any given time there are thousands [of victims] in Orange County, but they are very hard to identify, ecept through labor-intensive undercover work by law enforcement. There [is] a constant flow of new pimps, of new runaways, of new foreign girls being brought in, and as some [criminals are] prosecuted or some move on, you always have a flow of new [pimps] coming in to prey on new victims… It’s very hard for law enforcement to keep up…
What [the O.C. Bar Association’s Human Trafficking Task Force] is trying to do is getting, for instance, needed necessities such as toiletries or clothing. Or trying to connect the victims with volunteer immigration lawyers to help some of the girls who are here from foreign countries. Because they’re completely lost, obviously, as to what their rights are, or how they can go about becoming a citizen, but when they find out that there’s a specific law that allows them, as a foreigner, to become a citizen because they are a victim of human trafficking, their whole world opens up. They suddenly have hope.
I think the whole concept of human rights horrors both here in the U.S. and abroad needs to be known. When I tell people we have about forty-five million sex and labor slaves around the world, they’re stunned. It’s like a lot of people have this sense that [sex trade and slave labor] is something that went out hundreds of years ago, and that’s not it at all. It’s just hidden in a lot of ways and around the world it gets no attention, so few people really understands how pervasive it is.”
Michael’s responses to the rest of my questions were exhaustive and informative, as you will read. Below are some of the questions that further explain the logistics of the Human Trafficking Task Force.
Q: How does your involvement in the Bar association relate to the Human Trafficking Task Force?
A: “Some people come in as President and maybe don’t necessarily want to do something that has their hallmark on it, they may just want to focus on running the Bar. Other Presidents come in and want to jump on the chance to do something new, which they really care about. Like the President before me, his issue was homelessness… For me, as I came into the Presidency, I had a few key issues on my mind. One of them was wanting to support and honor law enforcement, another was forming a group to support attorneys with illnesses and disabilities, and substance abuse issues, because we’d never done anything to care for our own members… but another very big and important one to me was human trafficking. And because I was friendly with law enforcement and a lot of the district attorneys (DAs) and the police officers, I became aware of the fact that there’s a huge human trafficking problem here in Orange County. So I really wanted to be a part of trying to combat that. And, like I said before, I get really disgusted by seeing people abused. And when you know that you’ve got a lot of young people coming into Orange County, and, a lot of them are runaways, and within 24 to 48 hours they are getting picked up by a pimp, sometimes seduced with “Hey, don’t worry, I’ll take care of you”, or “I’ll be your boyfriend”, and acting all nice and gentle, but then very quickly escalating that into being physically abusive… It’s the kind of things that it makes you so sick inside, you say “I’ve gotta do something. I don’t know what, but I’ve gotta do something.” So I formed the Task Force at the Bar, and we quickly got a group of people from across the Bar who wanted to help. For instance, we have a representative from the public defender’s office, and some people from the DA’s office, and judges involved, and a lot of community and charitable outreach types of people… an immigration lawyer but also a family lawyer, myself and other in-house counsel. So you see people from all across the Bar who want to do something to assist. It’s a daunting task, but when you’ve got things like this that are so big in scope, what you hope to do is get a lot of people together who are passionate… and then you’ll figure out ways you can help.”
Q: What does the Task Force do, precisely?
A: “For the Bar, because we’re not directly a court entity, we’re not a law firm or part of the DA’s office, what we’re trying to do is lend support to those efforts. So, for instance, we’re very close with a judge, Maria Hernandez, who’s in charge of the juvenile court system. She’s the one who is really face-to-face with all the girls coming through the system. When [the girls] get picked up, we don’t really prosecute them anymore. We’ve realized that these are victims, not people who should be treated like prostitutes. [That] is, historically, a horrendous thing, because if you’re already a victim of severe abuse since you’re a child, and then you’re abused by a pimp, and then you come [by] a police officer and instead of them seeing you as a victim they treat you like a criminal, it obviously demeans you even further and it makes you never trust law enforcement, right? So what Judge Hernandez and the police officers like Deputy Chief Julian Harvey in Anaheim [now are trying to get done] is really saying “Look, these are victims; we need to treat them like victims.” So we’ll assist, for instance, with charitable goods towards people coming through the system who have nothing of their own, but who are trying to get out from life under a pimp. And it’s very hard to get away from a pimp if you have nothing of your own, including maybe even clothing. Some of the girls who get picked up by law enforcement might literally be wearing underwear and a t-shirt, and have nothing else in life. So if you can give them simple things like a bag, sweatpants… toiletries, just stuff to help them start feeling a little bit like a human being, that’s one way to help. In the system, we currently have about fifty cases going through Orange County’s court system, but we know that there are thousands of victims out there in the sex trade alone, probably several hundred labor slaves. So the Bar tries to get involved in supporting and resisting efforts, and not necessarily any direct involvement in criminal prosecutions or with trying to go streets and pull people off.”
Q: Are there common identifiers to pinpoint this issue?
A: “I think one of the biggest things you can do is public awareness. So one of the things I’m doing in the Task Force, is we’re going to all the different section meetings in the Bar,… and to different Bar organizations, and to schools and medical groups, to say “Here are the signs of human trafficking,” One of the tell-tale signs, for instance, [is a] certain type of tattoo… The pimps will make girls get certain kinds of tattoos; sometimes it looks like a barcode, other times it will brand the name of the pimp on that girl’s body. And if you know to look for signs like that… you are better able to identify a victim of human trafficking coming through a hospital, for example… But, right now, doctors aren’t aware of the issue, they don’t look for that. So that’s the kind of thing we’re hoping to educate people on. Education is really important. I know that for myself, years ago, I saw signs of someone being trafficked but I didn’t understand it that way. I saw a young girl that looked like a prostitute, and my initial reaction was “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe the way kids dress today!” I didn’t realize the tough-looking woman next to her was probably someone in control of her. So, the more you learn these signs, the more you can absolutely raise the flag and look for law enforcement to intervene.”
Michael mentioned that, since he works in tandem with law enforcement, he has seen a lot of footage of the human trafficking issue (either covert, or seized from the pimps themselves, who will videotape themselves abusing and controlling the girls). When asked what he found most disturbing, this is what he said:
“So much of it is so graphic, I don’t want to be too specific. But I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that girls can run away easily… You see a lot of the undercover videos, where you see a girl, and say “Well sure, she could run away, she’s not necessarily a sex slave, is she?” But the problem is they’re so beaten down psychologically and so terrorized, because when some of them have tried to leave, they get brutally beaten or they get locked in a bathroom chained to a toilet for a week with no food, or submerged into an ice bath over and over (which is a pimp’s way to hurt and terrorize a girl without physical creating physical bruises or cuts). Any way to demean and beat down a person psychologically, emotionally, and physically happens. And so the most horrifying videos that show shocking things, usually are the pimps making the girl feel like “You have nowhere to go, I’m the only one that can take care of you and that you can count on because if you try to leave, I’m going to find you and kill you anyway.” If they have family, they’ll threaten that they’ll go kill their family if the girl ever runs away. They’ll hold the girl’s baby over a window ledge, to terrorize the girl and send the message “I’ll kill your kid if you ever resist me or run away.” So, there’s a real psychological hold, and that’s usually what you see in the videos, where the abuse is so horrifying. The pimp might even throw a motel door open and… they’ll just curse and taunt the girl, saying “Get out, go ahead, leave”–and the girls won’t because their so traumatized with terror and are psychological slaves to the pimps… Very sad.”
I also asked his opinion on the media, and its role in this whole issue:
“I think the media could be so invaluable in so many human rights issues, and I feel like these critical issues are almost ignored. Instead, the media does whatever [is] scandalous and whatever can be politically divisive for people to squabble over… That drives their rating. When really, the media could be such an invaluable tool toward spreading awareness and in helping people. I see very scant coverage of the human trafficking issues. If there’s a big law enforcement bust, they’ll cover it on a page one day and then it’s gone. You virtually never see [human trafficking] in mainstream media or national news, even though we probably have at least to 20,000 victims a year in the U.S. And national news could be so powerful as a force of awareness and then really pushing educational issues, such as, “Here are the signs to look for, here’s how you can help somebody you see that might be in need.” I think we do very little coverage of it, and it’s a bit of a tragedy…
There’s something really sickening to me about society that says “we’re not really gonna care about these issues unless it serves a political agenda or unless it serves somebody’s pocketbook.” And, I’m cynical, but I’m cynical because I’m a lawyer with over 20 years of experience of seeing corruption and seeing how people behave. Honestly, until it hits people in ways that it makes it personal for them, they often tend not to care and want to look away. And so long as human trafficking remains a largely hidden issue, people, unfortunately, won’t care until they realize how tragic it is and how hard it hits home by creating a culture of violence and abuse of human beings…
I would love to see every single one of [the Bar associations across the country] have a Human Trafficking Task Force, because when you’ve got hundreds of thousands of lawyers, and you can communicate and collaborate as a unified force, you’ve got a small army there, nationally. And lawyers are also people who are typically more adept in the legal system, and they know more about constitutional rights and they have more connections within law enforcement and can garner greater creativity with how to deal with the issue. But also, gather up forces for volunteerism… you could marshall huge amounts of energy and talent by doing that. I’m not aware of really any other Bar association… that has a Human Trafficking Task Force, for instance. And Orange County… has really become a leader in the country with its law enforcement Task Force. In fact, other groups around the nation are actually looking to Orange County… Now, the sad irony is that Orange County has been extremely successful in the past few years, with its law enforcement Task Force, because it groups all the different police departments and the DA’s office and all these charities and community service groups to come together as one group focusing on the issue. In Orange County, we’ve done so well fighting the issue and sentencing pimps to very long sentences. But there’s still this constant flow of criminals willing to come here, even though they know that we’re looking for them, and we’ll try to prosecute them.”
Now, the questions that bring us back to humanity:
Q: Considering you are often reminded of the evil in the world, do you ever question the positive side of human nature?
A: “Yeah, absolutely. I hate to say I’m cynical because I want to be positive and everything, but the simple fact is that the more you see evil behavior, the more 1) I want to do something about it continuously, but 2) it’s a depressing thing to see how human nature so often tends towards evil behavior whenever people are allowed to act on their wicked impulses, or whenever people think they can get away with cruel things, they will continue with their cruel behavior … Human trafficking thrives specifically because pimps look for girls who they know are vulnerable. And instead of wanting to help these girls in need, they want to use that vulnerability against them and utterly destroy them physically, mentally and emotionally. They want to crush all their hopes and dreams and make them feel completely worthless as a human being.”
Q: If you had a piece of advice to pass on, what would it be?
A: “The one piece of advice I’d say… really for lawyers, is that lawyers have a very special place in society because of their training and legal knowledge, and because of the positions they’re typically in, to be able to help. And I would really love to see all lawyers be driven to try to do something in society, whenever we see such horrifying, tragic problems such as human trafficking. It’s great to show up at a legal event or two a year that’s charitable in nature, but I think we all have an obligation to do something as substantive as we can, to always try to be contributing in some sort of way… I always say “If not lawyers, who?” I mean, citizens in general can always give of their time, and they should; but again, lawyers are in a very special position which begs for volunteerism to help people in need.”
I feel that a lot of what Michael had to say embodies the same spirit as this project. He, more than once, highlighted the importance of education and awareness, and how something as simple as these efforts can make worlds of difference. So, while this project may seem futile (i.e., that sharing these stories is only to complete some, dumb project), it’s not. I (typing this), you (reading this), and Michael (sharing this), we are all doing something.
I’d like to thank Michael Baroni for making time to talk to me and for making that time an incredibly eye-opening experience. If you would like to learn more about him and the incredible contributions of his career, I implore you to visit his website, michaelbaroni.com. I would also like to thank Dana Heyde for facilitating the process of this interview.
Perhaps the next time you drive through an area that appears to be filled with prosperity and luxury, you will be reminded of this interview, and that human rights violations are occurring right beneath our noses. They are not only in countries under an oppressive government or social group; they are, truly, everywhere. While Michael put specific emphasis on the actions lawyers should take, he also mentioned the charitable contributions common people can make through volunteerism; you can help make a change!
I hope you were somewhat surprised, inspired, and/or enlightened by this blog post, and, as usual, thanks for reading!