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(Photo: Tom Smart, Deseret News)
WEST JORDAN -- On a recent December day, in a modest West Jordan chapel, the members of the Summit Adventure Church exchange hugs, sing songs of praise and bow their heads to pray. At a pulpit made of pine, the assistant pastor rises to offer a simple reminder. His topic isn't the grace of Jesus, or sin and redemption, although in a way, it is about all those things. Instead, on this cold gray morning, he speaks of a growing plague spreading across the United States: human trafficking.
The congregation is reminded of the desperate call for the food and clothing needed on behalf of the enslaved victims in Utah.
This is the mission of the Summit Adventure Church, which has created a local nonprofit, called Operation 61, to help the victims of modern slavery. Together, they work with law enforcement to locate victims of human trafficking, and through donations and volunteer work, help those who are rescued rebuild their lives.
Because human trafficking is confined to the shadows and margins, definitive numbers of victims are hard to come by, making it difficult to get an idea of how big the problem is in Utah.
The Salt Lake Police Department estimates that 10 percent of all prostitutes in Utah are minors controlled by traffickers. Since 2006, there have been over 100 human trafficking cases in Utah, and an estimated 150 children have been rescued from traffickers.
Once you get into it, it's a lot different than looking at it from the outside. Listening to what these women and children have gone through is a different story.
People are trafficked for a wide variety of purposes, such as commercial sex and labor, which can include agricultural work, housekeeping or working in an office setting. In both categories, victims are forced to perform labor and/or services in conditions of involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery — via force, fraud or coercion.
In August of last year, for example, the Deseret News profiled four Thai men who worked on a Milford pig farm to pay off debts they owed to an international trafficking ring. During their stay in the United States, which included two years in Utah, their employer controlled their movements, and if they failed to work long and hard, the employer could ensure that their families back home would lose everything. Housing lacked enough heat in freezing winters and air conditioning in scorching summers. They repeatedly went hungry and even trapped wild birds to subsist.
"Once you get into it, it's a lot different than looking at it from the outside," said Brad Manuel, director of Operation 61. "Listening to what these women and children have gone through is a different story."
The federal government estimates there are anywhere from 80,000 to 2 million people being trafficked internationally, although human rights organizations put the number much higher. As many as 14,000 live in the U.S. An estimated 80 percent of victims globally are women and 50 percent are children.
Human trafficking breaks down into three major categories in the United States: foreign victims 18 or older who have been bought and sold for sex or labor across borders; U.S. citizens aged 18 or older who are bought and sold within the borders of the U.S. and are passed around U.S. cities and neighborhoods; and children that have been bought and sold for labor and sex within the U.S. and across country borders.
Summit Adventure Church and Operation 61 have partnered with the two biggest agencies in Utah that fight slavery — Utah Health and Human Rights (UHHR) and Child Rescue — to raise awareness. Operation 61 also helps trafficking victims by smuggling them survival necessities, such as iodine tablets to farm workers who are forced to drink from the same source used by animals. In the winter, Operation 61 gathers canned soup, coats and scarves and gloves for victims of slave labor.
After the snow melts and spring arrives, Operation 61 will begin working toward its long-term goal of building a safe house in Utah, which will shelter women and children trafficking victims. Manuel said it's difficult to find volunteers to work in the safehouse because many people with good intentions start the training, but can't handle the real-life nightmares victims have survived.
Alicia Holdaway, member of Operation 61, is currently going through the training to work in the safehouse.
"I was just like a lot of people who didn't really know it existed, through a series of events like seeing the movie "Taken" and reading local stories, I realized it's not just a Third World issue," said Holdaway, "It's a real issue in our society today."
The training includes tips on how to spot victims of trafficking, and how to protect children from perpetrators. "Follow your gut. If something feels wrong, call your local law enforcement, let them do the apologizing if you're wrong," said Lindsay Hadley, executive director for Child Rescue, a local anti-trafficking group.
An 11-year-old boy was rescued from his enslavement, for example, because a neighbor noticed him doing dishes at 1 a.m. She thought something looked odd about the situation so she made a call to local police, which saved the boy from his traffickers.
Two young girls were rescued from the commercial sex trade after community members called police after noticing that only men entered a salon in the area. After investigations, the girls were freed from their life of sex-for-hire.
But getting the victims out of the vicious cycle of trafficking is only half of the problem. The other half is preventing human trafficking from occurring in the first place. Holdaway said the best way to prevent sex trafficking is to help build up young women and to teach boys and young men how to treat young women.
"We see celebrities on TV that portray what young women should look like, which turns into low self-confidence. This creates a breeding ground for human trafficking," said Operation 61's Holdaway.
A runaway child or young teenagers with no self-confidence seeking love will find that attention from pimps, Holdaway said. Before the victim can realize it, they're stuck.
"It may sound surface level, but confidence we build in our young women in our society can make a huge difference," said Holdaway. "The platform for human trafficking is vulnerability."
Gina Bellazetin, project coordinator at UHHR, said traffickers recruit young boys and girls, who later recruit their friends. These traffickers then prey on these victims by exploiting their weaknesses, giving them love they don't feel at home and blinding them with gifts. Before the victims realize it, they are being forced into prostitution, dancing at strip clubs or working 20-hour workdays for no pay. These victims usually remain products bought and sold until a third-party gets involved, which most likely will be law enforcement.
"Drugs you can sell once, a human you can sell over and over and over again," said Bellazetin, "you get more out of a slave than you do an ounce of coke."
Other ways to prevent labor and sex victims from enslavement is to just be aware of signs that point to a victim of trafficking. Look for abuse, older men with younger girls, a person who does not hold their own documentation or a situation where the victim cannot speak or answer questions about themselves.
There is no one consistent face of a trafficker. Traffickers include a wide range of criminal operators, including individual pimps, small families or businesses, loose-knit decentralized criminal networks and international organized criminal syndicates.
There are many ways individuals within communities can help victims of human trafficking. The first step would be to contact organizations like Operation 61, who know what is needed and where it can go. Food and clothing donations are always needed by Operation 61, Child Rescue and UHHR. Victims who escape from their captors have little or no possessions of their own.
"This is really happening in Utah," said Manuel. "We want to mobilize the public, get people outraged over it and get active."
Services for the Summit Adventure Church are held Sundays at 10:30 at 6671 Redwood Road, West Jordan.