Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

'It's not a third-world problem': Utah's human trafficking survivors, experts bring attention to global issue

By Ashley Imlay, KSL.com | Posted - Apr. 17, 2021 at 7:57 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — Elizabeth Frazier grew up in a suburban Salt Lake County neighborhood where she says she played soccer with her friends and appeared to have a regular childhood.

"But I also was sold almost every week, sometimes multiple times a week — sometimes a revolving door — in Utah, in this neighborhood," Frazier said.

Others in her Sandy community "never would have guessed what I was doing," Frazier said.

Her parents taught her she was "special" and therefore couldn't tell others what she was being forced to do, she recalled.

When she got married and moved to California, she said she felt safe to "draw a more firm line in the sand of not going back, and felt a little protection by being further away," Frazier said.

She shared her story on Saturday at the Human Trafficking Policy and Education Summit at the Malouf Foundation in Logan, where survivors, Utah congressional leaders, and human trafficking experts sought to draw awareness to the issue and discuss potential solutions.

'It's not a third-world problem'

Everyone knows someone who has been abused in some way, whether they realize it or not, said Elizabeth Smart, whose kidnapping and nine-month captivity when she was a teenager made national headlines.

She said other survivors often tell her "nobody ever believed me."

"How you initially respond to someone when they disclose their abuse to you can honestly impact them for the rest of their life. Whether they go on to pursue justice, to pursue professional help, to pursue happiness in their life, to find happiness in their life," she said.

One of the most common questions Smart says people ask her is "Why didn't you run?"

"It just made me feel so defensive," Smart said, but as she got older she realized she wasn't processing it as a question but as a criticism of how she handled her kidnapping.

When she made a recent social media post telling sexual assault survivors that it wasn't their fault, Smart says she received a message from someone telling her that those who post revealing photos "ask for it."

Perpetrators have brains, however, and "we should be putting responsibility where it should be at," Smart said.

Deondra Brown — member of the 5 Browns who, along with her sisters, survived sexual abuse at the hands of her father — urged people to let survivors know "you're supportive and that you're there for them."

"You want to be able to open yourself up and let them see that no matter what, it doesn't matter the details, it doesn't matter if it's family or not, that you will be that trusted individual, that you will give them support," Brown said.

Although her brothers' image of their father was "shattered" when they learned of the abuse of their sisters, Brown said they always believed them and never asked for details.

"One of the most important things I can tell people is just to listen and be that support. You don't need to know all the specifics. Your job is just to be there and make sure they're not alone, because quite frankly, they will come across times in their lives where they do feel alone," Brown said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, greets human trafficking survivors Julie Whitehead, Coco Berthmann and Elizabeth Frazier at the Human Trafficking Policy and Education Summit at the Malouf Foundation in Logan on Saturday, April 17, 2021.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, greets human trafficking survivors Julie Whitehead, Coco Berthmann and Elizabeth Frazier at the Human Trafficking Policy and Education Summit at the Malouf Foundation in Logan on Saturday, April 17, 2021. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

Frazier said she wants people to know that trafficking "is not a third-world problem."

It happens in our neighborhoods, she said, even in the Beehive State.

Fighting human trafficking

Robert O'Brien, former national security adviser in the Trump Administration, says he came to Utah in October last year to meet with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and other leaders "because we wanted to get an idea at the federal level of how Utah is using public-private partnerships" to fight human trafficking in all its forms.

He praised the state's business, nonprofit and government collaborations that work to end human trafficking, which he says are unique in the U.S.

O'Brien described human trafficking as a $150 billion a year industry driven "by vested interests and cartels, and even sadly some foreign governments that are involved in this, and it's going to take an all-hands-on-deck effort."

He said the issue is a bipartisan one, and efforts to end it will be one of the "greatest legacies" of former President Donald Trump's time in office. President Joe Biden will likely continue those efforts, according to O'Brien.

Former national security adviser Robert O'Brien speaks at the Human Trafficking Policy and Education Summit at the Malouf Foundation in Logan on Saturday, April 17, 2021.
Former national security adviser Robert O'Brien speaks at the Human Trafficking Policy and Education Summit at the Malouf Foundation in Logan on Saturday, April 17, 2021. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

Afraid that the pandemic would lead to more drug and human trafficking being brought into the U.S., O'Brien said the federal government put out a "net" to prevent traffickers from bringing in narcotics. That effort led to the seizure of over $4 billion in narcotics compared to what the government seized the previous year, he said.

"All these traffickers swim together in the same stream, and they're joined in that filthy water by every type of common criminal," including terrorists and money launderers, O'Brien said.

"And so to clean up those filthy dirty waters ... it's going to be an all-hands-on-deck effort, and that's something that we tried to implement, and I think we had a lot of success," he said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said societies are judged both historically and in the present by how they treat individuals and whether they recognize the worth of each person. While the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids slavery, criminals find loopholes in other laws, Lee said, explaining that "we can do much, much better than we are now" in preventing it from happening.

He said he believes people who are trafficked have been "otherized," which he described as being demeaned or diminished. Lee said he believes that's happening along the U.S. border with immigrants getting trafficked in, who are often assaulted or sex trafficked on the way.

The U.S. needs to "make sure that we are monitoring and in one way or another controlling traffic across international boundaries," Lee said.

He said working to prevent illegal immigration shouldn't be controversial, regardless of one's political views. When waves of illegal immigration happen, he said, "that's where the otherization often begins ... that's where it takes control and can lead to mass casualties."

While not all human trafficking victims are brought across international lines, many are brought by drug traffickers.

"They're very sophisticated, very wealthy organizations, and they're very methodical in how they carry these things out," he said.

Statistics show that at least 1⁄3 women and girls who get trafficked across the border face assault and sex trafficking, according to the senator.

"When we're not allowed to return people directly to their country of origin ... that causes problems. I seek to close that loophole," Lee said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, talks to journalists at the Human Trafficking Policy and Education Summit at the Malouf Foundation in Logan on Saturday, April 17, 2021. With Lee are Reps. John Curtis, Burgess Owens and Blake Moore, all R-Utah.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, talks to journalists at the Human Trafficking Policy and Education Summit at the Malouf Foundation in Logan on Saturday, April 17, 2021. With Lee are Reps. John Curtis, Burgess Owens and Blake Moore, all R-Utah. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

He said he sees one solution as "safe third country agreements," through which immigrants would be required to remain in Mexico or other countries while seeking asylum in the U.S. Lee believes that will lead to a decrease in trafficking. The policy has been widely criticized by Democrats, activists and advocates.

When asked if there could be bipartisan action on the issue, Lee said there should be "some."

Rep. John Curtis pointed to his bill on human trafficking, which recently sailed through Congress.

"If we can isolate issues and take the politics out of it, these will pass," Curtis said, explaining that he believes bills tackling human trafficking can get bipartisan support if lawmakers don't overcomplicate them.

Rep. Blake Moore said the U.S. needs to implement a survivor relief act so that those who have faced prostitution charges can get jobs. He believes the bill will get bipartisan support. He also emphasized the need for more workforce development opportunities throughout the country, to prepare people, including survivors, for jobs.

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, said "We are a very, very diverse people ... this is the one thing we can agree on."

"Once we come together and say this is something that we can do something about ... we're going to do our part to make that happen," he said.

When asked by a reporter to respond to a Friday report that he accepted a $2,000 donation from Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz — who is under investigation with the Department of Justice for allegations of child sex trafficking — Owens declined to say whether he would return the money. He said he wanted to keep the focus on the survivors speaking at the event.

Survivors coming forward

Julie Whitehead, another survivor of human trafficking in Utah, said she was sexually abused as a child, and the abuse lasted into her teens. She then met someone she thought would save her from that situation, but he ended up being abusive as well. When she ended the relationship after 12 years, a sex trafficker came into her life.

"So it went from bad, to worse, to even worse," Whitehead explained.

While she says she continues the healing and recovery process, she finds empowerment in spreading awareness about human trafficking "especially here in Utah."

"The younger that we can learn about these issues and teach our children about these issues, the easier it'll be to escape it," Whitehead said.

Human trafficking survivors Julie Whitehead, Coco Berthmann and Elizabeth Frazier speak on a panel at the Human Trafficking Policy and Education Summit at the Malouf Foundation in Logan on Saturday, April 17, 2021.
Human trafficking survivors Julie Whitehead, Coco Berthmann and Elizabeth Frazier speak on a panel at the Human Trafficking Policy and Education Summit at the Malouf Foundation in Logan on Saturday, April 17, 2021. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

Coco Berthmann was born and raised in Germany, where she said her family trafficked her for the first 15 years of her life until she ran away from home.

Now, she works to address misconceptions about human trafficking.

Like Frazier, Berthmann said she was "right in the middle of everyone" while her abuse was happening. She wasn't locked up, the way some people picture victims of trafficking. She took horseback riding and dance lessons and was around others.

It wasn't until she watched an American TV show that she started seeing similarities between her home and things she saw on the show, and started realizing "something's wrong," Berthmann recalled.

In 2016, while volunteering with refugees in American, she recalled the abusive behavior patterns she'd experienced in her family. She said if she would've recognized them as a child, she would've escaped earlier.

Frazier, Berthmann and Whitehead each spoke of the importance of educating children about human trafficking. Describing their difficulty finding sensitive help from law enforcement, they also called for more trauma-informed training for officers.

"And I think it's so important to start building just a safe environment for individuals to come forward so that they feel brave," Berthmann said. "I think we are at a point now where we have to address it and have to build the system of safety and security where people can feel brave enough to come forward and not be traumatized in the process."

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