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San Diego chief deputy district attorney Summer Stephan. (Courtesy)

'Modern day abolitionist'

Tireless San Diego prosecutor draws comparisons to Olivia Benson, ‘Law & Order’ character

By Zainab Salbi on June 22, 2017

She is not from New York and she does not wear pantsuits, but she is as fierce, passionate and committed to her job as Olivia Benson, the tireless detective on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Her name is Summer Stephan and she is the chief deputy district attorney in San Diego.

“In a lot of ways Olivia’s character embodies Summer’s spirit. Summer is extremely passionate in making sure that justice is serviced for the victims. She is real and passionate about the issue. She brings it from the angle of real humanity. And it is really refreshing for a survivor like me to see someone who is passionate about this issue. She is our local champion,” said Tom Jones. Stephan’s commitment to bringing justice for sex trafficking victims is refreshing for Jones and something that restored his belief in the justice system.

Jones did not see swift justice after he reported his own father, who had trafficked him as a child until the age of 15, to the authorities. “As I tried to pursue justice, the justice process just did not know how to deal with children of sexual violence and the process itself ended up victimizeing me again. The authorities gave my father a lesser punishment so they can pursue other people he was involved with. But I wanted justice for myself,” Jones said. That was back in the ’80s and Jones had to make a decision between staying angry and cynical or believing that there is hope in the justice system. He had taken a leap of faith to believe in the system, but it was not until he met Stephan that his leap of faith proved right. “Unlike a television character, Summer has seen awful things as a prosecutor here in San Diego and has done real things about it. Anybody who gets in contact with her for few minutes will know her passion about the issue,” Jones continued.

Stephan smiles at the comparison between her and Olivia Benson. “It is funny because I wanted to name my unit The Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. We couldn’t do it for various reasons, so I had a sign in my desk saying ‘Special Victims Unit.’ I did that because the victims are special and what happened to them is very different than any one else. Sex trafficking snatches away their dignity in a very unique way. They are special not only because of the crime they endure but because of the resiliency and the way they come back and return to the state of being free people,” she said.

Stephan is talking about the victims’ light and how she has seen no light in victims eyes when they were captured. “When you look in the eyes of someone, you almost see that their very spirit was taken away. And, over time, after they are rescued, you see them graduating from college and now helping other victims alongside of you. You can’t help but have this issue be like a fire in your life. People who want to do good do it with lot of persistent and stubbornness. It’s the only way it can happen.”

San Diego is one of the top 13 cities in the U.S. where sex trafficking and child prostitution is a thriving industry of about $810 million per year. In San Diego alone, it amounts to the second-largest criminal enterprise, even outpacing gun trafficking. It trails only the sale of drugs. Eighty percent of the victims are U.S.-born women and children, and only 20 percent of the victims and perpetrators are foreign born immigrants. “It is a hidden population that hides in plain sight,” Stephan explains as she talks of all the places victims are found: hotels, libraries, and Craig’s List advertisements.

“Contrary to public perception, the race and ethnicity of the perpetrator, the victims and the buyer is as much white as it is Asian, African-American or Latino. They are Americans — the perpetrators, the victims and the buyers,” she explains. The average age of entry into the sex-trafficking industry is 16 years old. Most of the victims have been victims of molestation as children and a high concentration of the victims are in foster care or are in and out of homes, and some are living with families facing violence inside their homes. They are often tricked through love and romance. Stephan calls the subterfuge “Romeo tactics” and Jones describes it as the “exploitation of love.”

Victims, children who are mostly facing violence and instabilities at home, are lured through love and affection at first. The perpetrators seduce them with kindness, safety, and shopping before they start trafficking them. Often the victims feel they have done something wrong after their first sexual experience with their trafficker, which keeps them in fear and entrapped by their captors.

It was a 15-year-old girl that caught Stephan’s attention after she became a public prosecutor. The girl had run away from home as she was invited to go to a place of safety and shelter by a perpetrator who first sexually abused her and then sold her to other men. “I didn’t know it was human trafficking then. But it was the look of that girl, one of deep shame and feeling like she was not treated as human but as a product. That look stayed with me. I didn’t know it was human trafficking. It was beyond the other cases that I prosecuted.” A few years later, after she read a report by the FBI about child prostitution, Stephan started to put the case together and realized that this was one thriving industry where about 5,000 kids are taken every year in San Diego alone.

It was then that Stephan became a champion of sex trafficking victims. She led the Sex Crime and Human Trafficking Unit in the D.A.’s office, started the Commercial Sexual exploitation of Children Task Force that brings together governmental and non-governmental agencies to collaborate, developed training for investigating officers geared toward an understanding that most people do not engage in prostitution because they wake up one day saying “this is what I want to do,” and she created a collaboration of survivors of sex-trafficking in the training and rescuing efforts of trafficked victims.

Her reputation among victims and survivors grew and eventually she started being referred to as a “modern day abolitionist.” The reason for the victims’ deep sense of devotion to Stephan is simply because she understood the issue and did not put the blame on the victims even if they were caught after they were 18 years old. As Jones puts it, the “majority of the time they had been molested as children and trafficked as teenagers. But when the child turns 18, it does not mean they are no longer a victim.” Prior to Stephan’s intervention, the law put the blame on victims at the age of 18, and those people were often put in prison. Stephan changed that paradigm. “Something happened to them that this is what they ended up doing,” she explains.

With that, she made sure all police officers are trained with other survivors alongside her so that officers can better understand the context of trafficking victims’ lives and can ask objective questions where the victims can be heard safely and appropriately. She made sure that even old cases where women served jail time for prostitution could be reopened if the person can show they were victims of sex trafficking prior to turning 18 years old. That makes a difference both in new convictions as well as old ones and in the ability of victims to get jobs and not be labeled by society as “prostitutes” if their charges are in the context of their victimhood.

Her latest initiative entails putting an advocate on duty who is not a police officer and who is often a survivor of sex trafficking to help build a safe space for newly-rescued victims. She also recently launched the Ugly Truth Of San Diego, a public campaign that lays bare the truth about prostitution and the economics that fuels it. “People are not products. Stop purchasing them,” the campaign urges.

Instead of sporting Olivia Benson’s pantsuit, Stephan wears a skirt suit. And instead of Benson’s dark brunette hair, Stephan highlights hers blonde. But, most importantly, Stephan is a real-life woman whose work is reflected in the Olivia Benson character — one who’s watched by millions of Americans. Perhaps if the same millions of viewers paid equal attention to the real-life issue of sex trafficking in America that is happening in plain sight, as Stephan puts it, this devastating crime could be eradicated. Until such day, Stephan plans on continuing her efforts and just announced her candidacy to become the next District Attorney office of San Diego.

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit


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