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SALT LAKE CITY — Although it is often thought of as a foreign issue, there is still a large problem with human trafficking in Utah, the state's top law enforcer says.
"Human trafficking, modern-day slavery, has never been in greater number than it is today," Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said during a panel discussion Tuesday. Yet "more than ever, we have new and emerging assets in the fight, new technologies, new techniques, new partnerships that give me a lot of hope."
The discussion held at the state Capitol included a police officer who is a survivor of human trafficking, Suzie Skirvin.
When she was 19 she was planning to join the Air Force and moved to California, where she met someone on Tinder and eventually agreed to move in with him. Before she moved in he took her out to a nice dinner, placed her purse with her phone, keys and wallet on his chair and asked her how she was going to pay for what he was providing.
"He said ‘OK now you’re going to be a stripper and an escort’ and the only thing I could say was ‘OK,’" Skirvin said.
She said knowing what she does now there were things she should have spotted. His stories didn't add up, she didn't hear about his friends or family and he said he had a job but she didn't know what it was and didn't see him going to work. She also did not look at his social media pages or ask about his family.
Andrea Sherman works with victims of human trafficking at the Refugee and Immigrant Center with the Asian Association of Utah. She cited a report from Polaris that said the average age someone is led into a sex exploitation situation is 19 and labor trafficking is 23.
"If we can get the information to these people who can then be vulnerable to enter into a trafficking situation, then that is a huge way that we can also combat this," Sherman said.
Josh Caless, a supervisory special agent in the attorney general's office who works on human trafficking cases, said here in Utah human traffickers are not what we would normally think of, they are often family members of the victims.
"There is no single way that (human trafficking) looks, and I think that can sometimes be hard for people when we’re trying to talk about it because there’s not one victim profile, there’s not one trafficker profile," Sherman said.
Assistant attorney general Dan Strong said criminals turn to human trafficking because it looks different every time, it hasn't been prioritized by law enforcement and there is a huge demand.
That demand is fed by the little attention given to the issue by law enforcement, Reyes said.
"One of the reasons human trafficking has escalated exponentially is that there is so much reward and there’s very little risk … there is very little chance they’ll get caught, and if they do a lot of times they’re not getting prosecuted," Reyes said.
Utah has many factors that bring increased rates of trafficking, according to Sherman. These include the location at the crossroads of two major highways, many remote areas and the resort businesses.
Skirvin talked about signs and warnings she displayed that no one recognized: She wasn't free to come and leave; she was fearful and anxious; she didn't have control; and she had scripted stories she shared with her family and friends.
A law enforcement officer saw her at one point bailing her pimp out of jail and talked to fellow officers about the age difference, but did not act. He apologized to her later.
Strong advocated for a victim-centered approach when looking into situations where human trafficking could be involved. He said they have found more success building trafficking cases when victims are treated as victims.
"Please when you come in contact, please do not treat these people like they’re trash … give them hope, and speak to them like you would any other person even though they’re not mentally there," she said.
Doctors also see sex trafficking victims and often don't notice.
According to Dr. Kathy Franchek-Roa, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah School of Medicine, 80 percent of survivors of sex trafficking accessed health care during their captivity. Doctors should ask about tattoos, poor dental hygiene and multiple spontaneous abortions.
"We need to be attuned to these things and letting patients know we are a safe place for them to come to tell their story and to get help," Franchek-Roa said. This is referred to as being trauma-informed.
Caless said most of the good cases he encounters come from tips. He encourages people to notice what is going on in the community and report anything suspicious.
That advice is supported by the attorney general.
"We would rather go through 10 cases and have all 10 of them not turn out to be human trafficking than miss one case,” Reyes said.
Skirvin said as a police officer, even on normal calls, she asks questions and gets to know people. She noted that if people had asked her questions she may have gotten out sooner, or if not it would have brought her hope.