‘Something was really wrong:’ During Human Trafficking Prevention month, a Utah survivor shares her story

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Utah human trafficking survivor Julie Whitehead, photo courtesy of the Malouf Foundation

UTAH (ABC4) – By nature, human trafficking is unseen. The 24.9 million people who are victims of trafficking at any given time often fall under the radar, invisible and unheard. And while most of us know about these dangers, it’s often easier to imagine that they happen far, far away from where we live.

But human trafficking exists in Utah, too. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there were 64 reported cases of human trafficking in Utah in 2020.

Julie Whitehead, a Utah local, was trafficked in Layton when she was thirty years old. At the time, the mother of three was involved in an abusive marriage, and a man she met through her job as a preschool teacher preyed on her when she was at her most vulnerable.

Initially, he was a source of comfort for Whitehead, giving her a shoulder to lean on after her then-husband was arrested for domestic abuse. Then, about two weeks into their friendship, the man raped Whitehead and their relationship quickly became dangerous and nonconsensual.

“He became really possessive and controlling and very abusive,” she says. “He had information that I had given him about my divorce and custody battle that was going on and he used that against me like blackmail. He threatened to harm not only me, but my children as well if I didn’t comply with him.”

After five months of being sold into sex trafficking across Utah and in surrounding states, a man noticed Whitehead in a restaurant and had an inkling of a suspicion that she was in trouble. He approached her, and through trusting him, she was able to escape from her trafficker.

January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and Whitehead is sharing her story with hopes of informing the public about the signs of human trafficking so they can potentially help those in need, just as her savior did.

According to Whitehead, there are many signs of trafficking, noting that most trafficking occurs at a familial level. Some warning signals could be as overt as children being pulled out of school regularly by a family member, or as simple as a lack of eye contact on the victim’s part.

“I didn’t dare make eye contact,” she says. “Part of that was how I felt about myself with the shame and the guilt of what was going on and part of that was because I was told not to make eye contact with anyone.”

Of course, none of us ever expect to be in a situation where we are in a position to help a human trafficking victim, but it’s important to be prepared for this possibility. Whitehead has partnered with a local nonprofit, the Malouf Foundation, whose goal is to confront child sexual exploitation to help inform the public about the realities of trafficking. Recently, the Malouf Foundation has also joined forces with the Elizabeth Smart Foundation.

The Malouf Foundation has developed a free online training, called OnWatch, to help the public recognize the signs of human trafficking.

“Julie was a big part of [developing the training], as it’s survivor informed,” says Kacie Malouf, who co-founded the Malouf Foundation with her husband, Sam. “It helps you to recognize and then report the signs of human trafficking.”

And not only is it important to recognize the signs of trafficking, Malouf says action is essential if you encounter a potential trafficking situation.

If you don’t feel comfortable or safe approaching the victim directly, as Whitehead’s rescuer did, Malouf advises calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

“One of the things that I learned from Julie was sometimes we’re afraid to approach other people. Sometimes it’s safe to do that and sometimes it’s not, but you can always ask the person even if they don’t confide in you at that moment,” Malouf says. “I know Julie had an experience where she just felt very validated by someone saying, ‘Are you okay, can I help you?’”

Above all, a good principle when confronting human trafficking is: if you see something, say something.  

“I think, really, it’s just kind of sometimes a gut feeling,” she says. “And that’s what happened when the person saved me. It was just a gut feeling that something was really wrong.”

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