Trafficking of young women and girls as young as 12 for sex is almost invisible to the public, but it is prevalent across the country and in Utah, where some are now planning to create a safe haven for victims of this slave trade.
Young women who escape their traffickers, experts say, are emotionally, psychologically and physically broken.
“My identity was impaired. I had no knowledge that I was any good to anyone,” trafficking survivor Kimberli Kocherhans said recently at a symposium on sex trafficking. “You can’t imagine a different life.”
Estimates vary widely, but the FBI says that each year, hundreds of thousands of youths are at risk of being trafficked for sex.
Many times, the victims are disaffected girls and young women who are befriended by a relative or man who shows them love at first, but then coerces them, by one means or another, into having sex with strangers. Soon they find themselves in physical or psychological bondage, often accompanied by drugs, where they may have sex with a dozen men a day.
“I married an abusive man and left him,” said former sex worker Brittney Garcia. “I got in with a bad guy who made me have sex with other guys.”
It left her with post-traumatic stress disorder and a substance addiction. She has been clean now for three years.
Like Garcia, mental health providers say most women who find freedom from sex trafficking face daunting barriers before they can return to a normal life.
A group of Salt Lake City women and men are now considering the creation of a safe haven for trafficked victims, like Kocherhans and Garcia, that would allow them to heal over a two-year period while offering therapy, programs and education in an effort to give them a new chance at life.
A model for such a sanctuary already exists. Its creator, Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest from Nashville, Tenn., recently visited Utah as a guest of the Junior League of Salt Lake City. The organization also invited local service providers and stakeholders to a symposium called Love Heals, to explore solutions for victims of trafficking and exploitation along the Wasatch Front.
The public doesn’t want to think about sex trafficking, said Gina Salazar, a Salt Lake City native who was abused as a child. She was among a panel of survivors, along with Kocherhans and Garcia, who spoke at the forum.
“I sold my soul on North Temple and State Street,” Salazar said. “It’s hard for people in the community to wrap their heads around the notion that women like me are victims. But nobody wants to be sold to man after man after man, and then jump into a dumpster for food.”
Stevens’ Nashville-based program, called Magdalene Serenity House, offers a safe haven where women live for two years in a communal house. It is paired with Thistle Farms, where survivors create products they sell online and elsewhere to support the effort.
Although health care and education are provided, the main ingredient to success, Stevens said, is love.
“When you are loving people the way we desire to be loved, it makes a big difference,” she said. “But for love to be effective and change things, it has to be practiced every day,”
A case in point is Tiffany Thomas, who was trafficked from a young age. To survive, she walled herself off emotionally from people around her.
“I didn’t trust my family. I couldn’t trust any man I was with,” Thomas said. “I came to the [Magdalene] program and was weirded out. The community kept loving on me and I hated it. But once I opened up to love and let them love on me — that’s what healed me.”
Short-term programs, Stevens said, don’t allow enough time for sex-trafficking victims to recover from the torture and trauma they have endured.
“You need time, and [programs] have to be practical and they have to be relevant,” Stevens said. “You don’t have to hide your failures. That is a lonely road. Love has as much to teach us in our failures as it does in our successes.”
There are organizations along the Wasatch Front that accept trafficked women, such as Journey of Hope.
“Women need a safe place where they are not judged. But addiction and prostitution have been criminalized. You don’t have a safe place for girls here. They aren’t treated, they are incarcerated.”
— Shannon Miller Cox, executive director of Journey of Hope
But existing services in Utah are for shorter terms than those outlined by Stevens, said Shannon Miller Cox, executive director of Journey of Hope.
“Women need a safe place where they are not judged,” Miller Cox said. “But addiction and prostitution have been criminalized. You don’t have a safe place for girls here. They aren’t treated, they are incarcerated.”
In Salt Lake County, enough stakeholders and service providers already exist to create a program like Magdalene, Miller Cox added. It is essential, she said, that the community moves forward with a plan for victims of sex trafficking.
Sanctuaries, like the one in Tennessee, have been replicated in other cities. Stevens’ program houses only eight women. But, she said, the success rate is high, about 90 percent.
Salt Lake City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said the most important aspect of the Love Heals symposium was coalescing the community around the notion that it can create a safe haven here for trafficked women.
“We now recognize that the future homeless resource center for women won’t be the solution for these victims,” she said of the plan to construct three homeless shelter/resource centers to replace The Road Home downtown.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski support the notion of a safe haven for trafficked women. And that, Mendenhall said, is a big plus for the proposal to go forward.
At present, a needs assessment is being conducted by the University of Utah College of Social Work.
But quantifying the number of trafficked women along the Wasatch Front is a challenge, said research analyst Allison O’Connor. Many women in the sex trade are afraid to talk to people who ask questions about their lifestyle or circumstances.
Nonetheless, O’Connor is enumerating the resources available for trafficked women and what gaps should be addressed before a holistic treatment center can be realized.
Law enforcement will be key to the success of any such program, according to planners.
The Salt Lake City Police Department does have a squad that focuses on sex trafficking and prostitution.
“Some kind of sanctuary or facility for people who have been involved in the sex trade would be a huge benefit,” said police department spokesman Detective Greg Wilking. “It would allow us to better help them and take them to a place out of the situation they are in.”
Plans for a safe haven in Salt Lake County remain preliminary.
Magdalene Serenity House
For more information of Becca Stevens’ program, visit www.lovehealsnwa.org.