SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – According to Aspen Magdalene House, sex/human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide that uses force, fraud, and coercion to sexually exploit women, men, and children. The International Labor Organization estimates there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally. It is the most criminal and profitable enterprise second to drug trafficking. The National Human Trafficking Hotline found that Utah has the fourth highest number, per capita, of human trafficking cases reported.

Through data provided from the Asian Association of Utah, we know that 251 human trafficking victims were served by the organization between 2019 and 2020. In our state, both foreign and domestic trafficking cases include commercial sex, multi-state prostitution rings, debt bondage, illicit massage businesses, domestic servitude, labor trafficking within the agriculture and hospitality sectors, forced drug trafficking, and more.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office says human trafficking is a hidden crime, as victims rarely come forward to seek help because of language barriers, fear of the traffickers, and/or fear of law enforcement. Additionally, traffickers look for people who are vulnerable, in ways like economic hardship, natural disasters, or political instability. The trauma can be so great that many may not identify themselves as victims or ask for help, even in highly public settings.

Some of the tactics that traffickers use to maintain control include using violence or threatening the person or person’s family members, harming or depriving the person of basic necessities, making false promises of love or companionship; restricting contact with friends or family, limiting freedom of movement, controlling the person’s identification documents, threatening deportation or law enforcement action, or garnishing the person’s salary to pay off alleged debts.

Several misconceptions exist about sex/human trafficking. Those include the thought that trafficking does not exist in Utah or the U.S., victims are only foreign-born people who are poor, or that all victims will seek help when in public. Recognizing key indicators of human trafficking is the first step in identifying victims and can help save a life. Some of those red flags or warning signs can be someone who appears disconnected from loved ones, children who have stopped attending school, dramatic changes in behavior, exhibiting fearful or submissive responses, and someone who appears to be coached or controlled in what they’re saying.

Up until now, there was no shelter in the State of Utah dedicated to providing safety, care, and healing for sex/human trafficking survivors. Aspen Magdalene House, which board members anticipate will be ready to open and operate in 2023, aims to be the first.

Brittney Garcia and Brandy Funk, two sex trafficking survivors joined ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen on the CW30 News at 7 p.m. for an IN FOCUS discussion. They shared what their childhood was like, the circumstances that led up to them being trafficked, how predators take advantage of their victims’ vulnerabilities, how they were able to recover from the lowest point of their lives, what their healing journey has been like, misconceptions that still exist about sex trafficking, who can be at-risk, the red flags/warning signs, and what their roles will be at Aspen Magdalene House.

Petey McKnight, board chairman for Aspen Magdalene House discussed data and statistics on sex/human trafficking, recent busts by investigators in Utah, why Utah needs a shelter for survivors, how her organization is modeled after Thistle Farms in Nashville, outcomes she’s seen for those who went through the program, and how the public can contribute or help.

To watch the full IN FOCUS discussion with Garcia, Funk, and McKnight, click on the video at the top of the article.

Catch IN FOCUS discussions with ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen weeknights on the CW30 News at 7 p.m.

Rosie Nguyen is an award-winning journalist who joined the ABC4 News team as a reporter in January 2018. In September 2020, she embarked on a new journey as the anchor for the CW30 News at 7 p.m. Although she’s not out in the field anymore, she is continuing her passion for social justice and community issues through the nightly “In Focus” discussions.