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MURRAY — When it comes to protecting children against sex trafficking, Utah is improving but could do better, according to a new report.
Shared Hope International, a nonprofit group that works to eliminate child sex trafficking, gave the state a C grade for its efforts. Out of a possible 102.5 points, Utah received 74.5.
That’s an improvement over the previous year, when the state received a D, and in 2011, when it got an F grade. Utah lawmakers strengthened the state's sex trafficking laws by increasing penalties for perpetrators and redefining the definition of a child to anyone under 18.
The Protected Innocence Challenge report looks at the extent states criminalize youth in the sex trade, how states look to reduce demand for child sex solicitation, how they punish traffickers, how they punish those who benefit from child sex solicitation, what protections are in place for child victims and how well states investigate and prosecute such cases.
Utah scored well in several areas, but the organization said Utah could do more to protect victims and prosecute those involved in sex trafficking.
The report gave the state 12.5 points out of 27.5 in protective provisions for child victims.
“Utah lacks a protective response to minor victims that treats them as victims and not as criminals,” said Christine Raino, policy counsel with Shared Hope International.
A protective response includes providing housing and services to the victims who have very special needs because of the nature of their trauma. Although the state does not have specific services for victims of trafficking, those who are victimized qualify for services to treat issues that may contribute to their continuing in the lifestyle — such as homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse or lack of life skills.
"We will continue to ferret out human trafficking regardless of the grade." –Greg Ferbrache, Assistant Attorney General
Under Utah law, child victims can still be treated in a punitive manner and aren't immune from prosecution of charges such as prostitution or delinquency, Raino said.
The state received 9.5 out of 15 for how well it investigated and prosecuted those involved in sex trafficking.
Utah Assistant Attorney General Greg Ferbrache is on the SECURE Strike Force team tasked with making sure victims of human trafficking — especially children — are safe.
The report, he said, is one of many tools that can help the state figure out how to eradicate human trafficking. Ferbrache said the score for investigations and prosecutions doesn’t reflect the work being done to help victims in Utah.
“We don't keep the number of somebody we extract or that we protected from a perpetrator of human trafficking because it's not an investigation. It didn't get to that point,” he said.
“There are cases when somebody is being groomed for commercial sex or being raped or different circumstances that we don't have the elements of the case to meet whether prosecutorial or investigative (requirements), but we still extracted the person for their protection," Ferbrache said. "That number doesn't count either.”
According to Ferbrache, Human trafficking is prevalent, but "Utah is moving in the right direction," he said. "We will continue to ferret out human trafficking regardless of the grade."
The report gave its highest score to Tennessee, 93.5. The lowest went to Wyoming, with 38 points.
The organization began the reports in 2011. At that time, 26 states had failing grades. This year, that number is six.
It also found that in one year, 29 states improved their grades, including eight that improved by two letter grades.
Anti-Child sex trafficking advocates, including some teens, say they're doing their best to improve Utah's grade even more. They channel their efforts through Backyard Broadcast, a youth-driven group that works to raise awareness about child sex trafficking happening in Utah.
This might seem like a heavy topic for high school teens, but the reality is they're the most vulnerable when it comes to sex trafficking.
Utah Trafficking Hotline: 801-200- 3443
Madi Palmer, the group's ambassador, started the club at Cottonwood High School in 2011. The club's newest campaign is "Real Men Don't Buy Girls."
"There's kind of a misconception about prostitutes and pimps and kind of joking about it, when really this is the most violent crime," Palmer said.
"Last year a girl walked up to Madi and said, 'You know this is really great that you're doing this. I was a victim once,' " said Tammy Tran, a member of Backyard Broadcast.
"Students in my own class don't even know that it's a big problem," said Geoffrey Goffe of Backyard Broadcast. "I think a lot of people don't even know that maybe they're a part of it."
If anyone suspects sex trafficking activity in their neighborhood, Ferbrache encourages them to call Utah's trafficking hotline at 801-200-3443.