There’s another group of vulnerable kids just as invisible as Utah’s estimated 5,000 homeless youth.
They are the victims of sex trafficking.
Those who study the issue believe any steps to address sex trafficking in Utah also will help solve the problem of youth homelessness.
But they say in the past, Utah laws have not helped solve the problem and the victims have remained largely invisible.
“We do have a trafficking problem,” said Tammie Garcia Atkin, director of the Utah Attorney General's Office of Victim Services. “It is very hard to find victims who will come forward. If she is forced under coercion, she would be considered trafficked.”
Atkin said girls often are introduced into prostitution by men who they believe are their boyfriends.
The men show them attention for a while and then tell them they need money and ask them to earn it by sleeping with someone.
“That’s how it starts,” she said. “It’s all sweetness and likes and then it turns into this violent relationship.”
Those closest to the issue in Utah say homelessness and trafficking have a symbiotic relationship.
Often a homeless youth falls victim to the sex trade industry because of his or her vulnerability, they say.
But also a common scenario ending in homelessness, they say, is recruitment into the sex trafficking trade.
This recruitment, they say, often begins as a result of pre-existing vulnerability, which can be the result of many factors including homelessness, abuse, economic pressures and neglect.
A Standard-Examiner visit to two emergency youth shelters in Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon revealed that social workers in those states pride themselves on the sex trafficking laws there that decriminalized youth victims who are prey to the industry.
The laws in both states allow for police who find young prostitutes to take them to shelters instead of jail.
Utah’s law, under the title of Safe Harbor, changed in the last session of the Utah Legislature.
At the moment, Utah’s policy says that a child is not subject to delinquency proceedings for engaging in prostitution unless a law enforcement officer has referred the child to the Division of Child and Family Services on at least one prior occasion for an alleged act of prostitution or sexual solicitation.
Previously, all who were suspected of prostitution were taken to jail.
Fernando Rivero, a volunteer education chairman for the Utah Trafficking in Persons Task Force and a frequent presenter about human trafficking, said Utah has stepped in the right direction but before changes can actually begin, Utahns need to be educated.
“Our laws are new enough — there’s still going to be a lot of training for police,” he said. “It’s going to be a while before that law really takes effect.”
Rivero said the Utah Trafficking in Persons Task Force has been going for two years. “We’re still learning about combating sexual trafficking in Utah,” he said.
Rivero hopes to make a difference through frequent lectures on the subject.
“Education is huge,” he said. “Parents need to recognize the signs.”
And he said the more everyone knows about the issue, the better equipped they will be to recognize it when they see victims of trafficking.
Professionally a fire captain, Rivero said because he was educated on what to look for, he was able to recognize a sex trafficking business once when he visited an area doing a building inspection. He said firefighters are in an excellent position to help with this issue.
“We go into many homes and businesses in the community and we have opportunities to report,” he said.
He’s hoping to get more education on this subject into Utah schools.
Rivero is hoping to eventually steer Utah’s thinking more toward a victim mentality as seen in other states.
“In the state of Washington, they are clearly victims,” said Alaire de Salvo, administrative coordinator of Washington services of Janus Youth Programs in Washington state. “In other states, they are charged.”
Working out of the Oak Ridge emergency shelter in Vancouver, de Salvo said the reasoning in seeing young prostitutes as victims is the belief that they are tricked into the business.
“Really, who needs to be charged are the customers and the pimps,” de Salvo said. “We treat them with respect and compassion.”
Kevin Donegan, program director for homeless and runaway youth programs at Janus Youth Programs in Portland, said he works with many who have been in the business of prostitution from a very young age.
He displayed a part of his office where youth are brought by police, often in handcuffs, to be taken into the program. He outlined ways the different youth are kept separated from those who have committed more violent crimes. He said youth also are brought to the programs by volunteers who are trained to recognize homeless youth and prostitutes on the streets.
Donegan sends out a strict warning to parents who think their children are hanging out at the mall, because they could be in a situation where they are being recruited into sex trafficking and are unprepared.
“It’s not normal for an adult male to come up to you and tell you that your hair looks pretty,” he said of how the scenario often begins.
He said parents need to care enough to keep close track of their children in order to keep them safe.
In Portland, the street name for prostitution is “The Life,” he said, noting how the experience can seem exciting for those youth who fall prey.
“I get them and I tell them to do their social studies,” he said. “It’s not the same.”
Peter Thorpe, lead case manager of the Oak Ridge shelter in Vancouver, said he was so proud of his state’s effort in this area as he continually is given opportunities to work with youth picked up on the streets for prostitution.
“If you are tricked or manipulated into trafficking, you are not a criminal,” he said. “In other states, it’s not the john, not the customer, not the pimp, it’s the girl that goes to jail.”
He said the average age for a girl to enter prostitution is 13. “It just keeps going down and down,” he said.
According to the Freedom Alliance, the average age for victims to enter the sex trafficking trade is 12 to 14.
“People are discovering that it is a renewable resource,” he said. “You can sell a girl over and over again.”
Those who suspect they know of a situation where sex trafficking is occurring are asked to call the Polaris Project Tip Line at 1-888-373-7888 or the Utah Trafficking Task Force Tip Line at 801-200-3443.
The Standard-Examiner Young & Homeless Initiative is an effort to find ways to get the community to come together and lift up youth who are at risk of becoming homeless or who become homeless.
The Standard-Examiner is donating $1 for efforts to fight youth homelessness for every donation made online as part of the Standard-Examiner Young & Homeless initiative, up to $10,000.
To donate, visit https://cares.standard.net/young-homeless/.
You may reach JaNae Francis at 801-625-4228. Follow her on Twitter at JaNaeFrancisSE. Like her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SEJaNaeFrancis.