Ashley Chesney had a normal life. She grew up in Pacific Grove, had a good family, played sports and graduated high school with straight A’s. But she had been molested at age 10 and that early trauma shaped the way she understood relationships. “I was so young,” she says. “It tarnished sex for me. I felt like that was all I had to offer.”
By 19 she’d experienced a cycle of exploitative relationships that saw her trafficked cross-country. “When I was moving I was running away from my abusers, but I’d find myself in these situations again and again,” Chesney says.
She has since become an outspoken survivor, and is now part of the effort to combat human trafficking on a local level. “Human trafficking is this massive thing, but if I can even help one girl here, it’s enough,” she says.
Countywide, there is a similar mission. The Monterey County Office of Education is partnering with the Department of Social Services and nonprofit Community Human Services to stop the industry from proliferating locally.
According to Ernesto Vela, MCOE’s assistant superintendent of student services, 100 kids ages 10-18 have been trafficked within Monterey County since 2015. “It’s bigger than we think,” he says. “The statistics can elude us.”
Vela notes that Highway 101 plus a mobile industry contribute to that. “Salinas is a major entry point because of the nature of our labor market,” he says.
Patty Hernandez of the Department of Social Services echoes that: “Think about the socioeconomic factors – homelessness and migrant populations,” she says. “It’s a perfect storm.”
The most vulnerable kids, Hernandez says, are marginalized in some way: They are LGBTQ+, have been in the juvenile justice system, are homeless or – like Chesney – have suffered childhood trauma. “These kids are used to having chaos around them,” she says. “It can feel normal to them to be in these situations.”
California schools are now required to teach an anti-trafficking curriculum, but Vela says they are in many ways playing catch-up. “This is the first year we’re expanding training to community organizations and members of the public,” he says. That training in part happens at an inaugural symposium MCOE and its partners will host Jan. 17, with a goal of increasing awareness that trafficking happens here.
“There’s a stigma,” Chesney says. “People think kids who are in these situations are homeless or come from broken homes, but look at me. Trafficking doesn’t always look like what people think.”