SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) – Imagine growing up thinking sex is a way of life. That’s what human trafficking of children can cause victims to believe. Advocate groups in Utah claim it’s not a problem found in Europe or Asia or other parts of the United States. They know it’s here in Utah too.
“I was probably 12-years old and met some friends of family,” said Gina who didn’t want her last name revealed. “He probably saw a vulnerable little girl and I was trafficked by him, by his sisters, his other brothers.”
Gina is now a grown woman with children and grandchildren. But her life journey was anything but easy. As a middle school student Gina kept this dark secret to herself. She said her parents looked the other way. They were drug users.
“I think I was just supposed to [become trafficked],” she said. “That’s what my body was for. That was the obligation I was supposed to feel.”
She said she was paid in drugs.
“I started using heroin,” Gina said. “I did what every male told me to do.”
According to the Center of Missing and Exploited Children there are currently about 300,000 under age children who are victims of human trafficking. At a recent legislative hearing, state officials testified there’s no firm data on the number of Utah kids being trafficked but they testified it exists. Advocates point to recent statistics released by the Department of Public Safety as evidence of child human trafficking in Utah.
In 2013, there were 179 juveniles arrested for prostitution. In 2014, 242 were jailed.
“Kids under traffickers are the most damaged children in our community,” said David Carlson with the Attorney General Child Protection Division. “[They’re] easy prey.”
Amanda Howa is a student at Westminster College.
“That was one of the findings of my research,” she said. “Men preferred to have the young, very small, petite, athletic shaped women.”
She’s doing research on human trafficking in Utah and Howa is learning that underage girls are available on line in Salt Lake City.
“There were times when the women would arrive with a driver or a handler that was driving and that’s seen as the woman isn’t 16 so she can’t drive herself yet,” said Howa.
The research aims to detail the size and seriousness of the sex trade problem in Utah. Her faculty advisor believes it will only grow.
“Men who have previously not participated in this market before because they don’t want to go out on the streets can now do it in the safety of their own home and have discreet meetings with commercial sex workers at their homes, at their offices,” said Han Kim, Associate Professor of Public Health at Westminster College.
Law enforcement in Utah continues to strike back in hopes of stopping human trafficking in the state.
But the owner of a business that was suspected of human trafficking and raided by agents with the Attorney General’s office, fled after he bailed out from jail.
Recently, Ashley Poike was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for child human trafficking. She is one of several arrested by police and charged with selling young girls to men. In 2014, another Salt Lake City man Victor Rax, suspected of trafficking young boys committed suicide in jail. In Washington County, Leroy Halley was sentenced to a year in jail for trafficking young girls in southern Utah.
“In many cases, these victims are treated as criminals,” said Fernando Rivero.
Rivero is an adjunct professor at Westminster College and also a captain with Unified Fire Authority. Besides lecturing students on topics like human trafficking, he also conducts sessions with law enforcement, paramedics and doctors in hopes of changing attitudes towards the victims of these crimes.
“It’s important that we recognize that this is a violation of the most basic right of freedom,” said Rivero.
And lawmakers are getting that same message from advocates. There’s a bill in the legislature designed to protect underage girls caught in human trafficking. During a recent legislative hearing on additions to Utah’s Safe Harbor Act, the attorney general testified for the change.
“We in law enforcement for too many years in our zeal to get the bad guys, far too often forgot the victims,” said Sean Reyes.
The executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Abuse has been championing the change in attitude towards victims. The bill would treat minors caught in human trafficking as victims, not criminals.
“I would like to see children get services immediately instead of going into juvenile system,” said Alana Kindness.
When she was 16, Gina was finally arrested.
“Nobody asked me about my trauma and I just had to sit in DT [juvenile detention] and go to foster care,” she said.
And she was back on the streets shortly after that. Gina believes had there been help at that age, she might have changed. It was only when she became an adult and was jailed for prostitution that advocates reached out to her.
“I was lucky, very lucky to meet some very wonderful people,” she said.
It helped change her life. She still walks the street late at night.
“Almost 80% of the 200 women I serve on North Temple and State Street I grew up with,” she said.
She said they still are prostitutes and were victims of human trafficking at a young age. Gina is now an outreach worker in search of women who still hustle.
“When they see me, they see something different,” Gina said. “Then they get hope.”
Utah’s state legislature is currently considering additions to the Safe Harbor Act. and there is also a House Bill 136 which would allow the death sentence as punishment for someone convicted of human trafficking.
Groups like the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault is also available for victims of human trafficking,