SALT LAKE CITY - A Salt Lake County lawmaker is running a human trafficking bill that would put teenage victims in a line of care through the state's Department of Child and Family Services, rather than on a criminal track.
Rep. Jen Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, thinks kids caught in what she described as "human slavery" shouldn't be victimized twice, if they are caught in a crime or have to deal with law enforcement.
Her bill, HB 254, would allow authorities to help victims 17 or younger access potential resources from the state, rather than being subject to a delinquency proceeding for prostitution.
"It's a huge problem and the people who engage in that kind of behavior, essential human slavery, know no political boundaries," Seelig said of the problem.
Under guidelines in her bill the victims would be allowed to figure out what is going on with their families and then could identify what resources they need. That would start with the state Department of Child and Family Services, rather than the courts.
Seelig contends human trafficking is a growing problem in the Beehive State.
A number of people agree.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank told a legislative committee over the interim that the number of displaced youth 14-17 years of age is on the rise. He told a children's welfare panel that using the courts to deal with some of their issues only makes the problems worse.
In that same meeting, Jennifer Larson, adolescent services director for DCFS, described Salt Lake City as a hotbed for human trafficking. She said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has proposed legislation at the federal level to address the issue, including potential funding for housing youth and decriminalizing some of the behavior from teens caught in trafficking-related crime.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder wants to keep the issue in perspective. He said the trafficking problem isn't as big in Utah as it is elsewhere, but he said one victimized child is too many.
"I'm wholly supportive of efforts to ensure when we do identify those we have proper legal remedies to resolve the problem and the proper assets," Winder said.
"Anytime an individual is forced into a circumstance that is not of their own choosing, it's degrading. You can imagine, whether forced labor, or sexual activity. Sexual exploitation is the most horrific and for those individuals to be told you are going to work here or be deported is enormous pressure for them to deal with," Winder said.
Layton Police Chief Terry Keefe said he hasn't seen a lot of human trafficking cases in Davis County but he said they have trained officers to be on the lookout for the problem.
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