Darrellyn Melilli, Ernie Allen, Sandra Morgan and Mary Beth Molnar front Vangard University's 10th annual conference on Women and Justice. (Ann Chatillon / September 21, 2013)

In July, a Saudi Arabian national, Princess Meshael Alayban, 42, was arrested by authorities in Orange County after one of her maids complained of being held against her will.

The maid, a 30-year-old Kenyan woman, had been hired by the family in her native country the year before and brought to the United States. She claimed that her passport had been taken upon arrival, that she was expected to work "around the clock" and that her earnings were a paultry $200 per month.

Managing to leave the Irvine condo, she got on a bus and explained her plight to a stranger, who then helped direct her to authorities.

Last month the case went to trial, and Alayban was acquitted of human trafficking charges. If found guilty, she would have faced serious jail time and a heavy fine.

Despite the fact that authorities found five other women working and living under similar circumstances in the Alayban residence, the jury concluded that there was a lack of evidence to convict on charges of trafficking and slavery. The defense called the episode a "misunderstanding and contract dispute."

Most residents of Orange County, and indeed most Americans, are unaware of such ugliness. Upon hearing the news unfold of the Alayban story, many unaccustomed to the notion of economic abuse of the poor probably attributed the "misunderstanding" to cultural differences.

How could slavery exist in 2013, especially in a free, civilized, democratic nation? The acquittal in the Alayban case aside, the reality of human trafficking is a worldwide cancer on the human race.

On Sept. 21, in the ballroom of the Balboa Bay Resort, an organization called the Global Center for Women & Justice, in association with Vanguard University, came together for a luncheon conference concluding a three-day seminar focused on the global crisis of human trafficking. The occasion marked the 10th anniversary of the program.

The keynote address was delivered by Ernie Allen, co-founder, president and chief executive of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC). Allen has devoted the past 23 years of his life to fighting child abduction, sexual exploitation, sexual violence and human trafficking.

He opened by telling the audience, "It is estimated that there are some 180,000 children in the United States today that are living under the threat of sexual exploitation."

Allen continued, "Good people don't believe that this can exist."

The "good people" in the Newport Beach crowd, well dressed, well fed, safe and secure in their lives, sat in silence as Allen pulled no punches in detailing the criminal aspects of the "the era of the Internet."

"In 2012, it is estimated that there were some 18 million child-porn videos online featuring as many as 76% of subjects that are pre-pubescent children," he said. "Ten percent feature infants and toddlers in sexually exploitive scenarios."

The speaker made his point, stating, "Pornography and the explosion of human trafficking is a 20-30 billion dollar business annually in this digital economy."

The statistics are alarming. The victims are predominantly girls and young women, although boys are also lured into sexual slavery through human trafficking. They are almost always poor, helpless, pre-verbal youths. And, as Allen says, they are victims of crimes that are repeated over and over again. To be blunt, they are a reusable commodity.

To bring attention to the plight, event chairs Darrellyn Melilli and Mary Beth Molnar, working with Sandra Morgan, Vanguard's director at the Global Center for Women & Justice and a teacher whose curriculum centers on women's studies and in particular family violence and human trafficking, inspired the Orange County crowd to face the reality, however distasteful.

Ed Arnold and Maria Hall-Brown, from PBS SoCal, helped to rally support, raising close to $75,000 for specific initiatives aimed at extending awareness of the problem and fighting the abuse. The initiatives include Child Trafficking and Juvenile Justice Frontline Summit, First Responder Training, Global Partnerships and Live2Free Peer Education.

Local support came from Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, Sheri Benvenuti, Elizabeth Leonard, Bill and Pam Lawless, Keith and Pamela Curry, Jerry and Bobbi Dauderman, Richard and Jane Taylor, Janice Caballero, John and Ruth Ann Evans, Rosalie Freedman, Jan Landstrom and the Oddo family, to name only a few.

To learn more, go to gcwj@vanguard.edu or call (714) 966-6360.

THE CROWD runs Fridays. B.W. Cook is editor of the Bay Window, the official publication of the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach.