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SALT LAKE CITY — Suzie Skirvin, a human trafficking survivor from Utah, says one of her greatest frustrations is that many people think trafficking doesn't happen here.
"They say 'Well, we don't really need to focus about it here because it really doesn't happen here,'" she said.
"I'm from Alpine, Utah, and it happened to me," said Skirvin, speaking on a panel Friday during the second-annual Malouf Foundation education summit in Salt Lake City. The Malouf Foundation summit strives to educate invited guests who are willing to get involved in the fight against child sexual exploitation.
In Skirvin's case, there were initially no red flags.
She had plans to attend college in California, but her personal goals were set aside after she began dating a man who was well-groomed and seemed to have her best interests at heart.
"He wasn't dressed in a way a pimp would be dressed like," she said.
One night, after enjoying a nice dinner, he asked how she was going to pay for the things he had been providing her.
A man she initially believed was her boyfriend trapped her into sex trafficking, setting up "appointments" for her to keep.
"Monday through Sunday that was my life. He controlled everything down to my nail color," said Skirvin, who now serves on the Malouf Foundation advisory board.
Eventually, she was able to escape her trafficker and her father brought her back to Utah, she said.
Her mother sent her to a "trauma-informed" physician, which was when she learned that she was pregnant. She credits her son for helping her survive the sexual violence she endured.
All three women on a panel discussion titled "Surviving Sexual Violence and Choosing a Path Forward" are moms and each said their lived experience has impacted how they have parented their children.
Tanya Gould, a survivor and director of the anti-human trafficking office of the Virginia Attorney General, is the mom of two sons and a daughter. She said she's worked to build up her children's confidence and sense of worth and make them aware of dangers in the world.
"I just wanted my kids to know what the world is like because I didn't. I felt like my trafficker knew that I didn't have confidence, that I had low self-esteem. My trafficker knew I was unsure of a lot of things," she said.
Skirvin said she does her "due diligence" when her son asks to go on a play date. She insists on meeting with the other child's parents and getting together as a group before allowing him to visit others without her direct supervision.
Kara Robinson Chamberlain, who was kidnapped at gunpoint from her friend's front yard in Columbia, South Carolina, when she was 15 years old, said her sons once asked Google who she was.
"They got the Google answer, which was not ideal," she said. She has since told them, in an age-appropriate manner, what had happened to her.
"I've tried to have that open dialogue with them. I want my children to know that I'm a safe space and we can discuss difficult things.
"They know, 'Hey, if you're outside and riding your bikes in the driveway and I have to go inside to stir dinner or go to the restroom, you're coming with me. You're not staying out here' because it can happen so quickly," she said.
Robinson Chamberlain said she was outside alone less than five minutes when she was abducted in broad daylight. A neighbor saw her get into the man's car and apparently did not perceive a problem "because I wasn't kicking and screaming," she said.
Her caution stems from her experience of being kidnapped and brutalized for 18 hours until she was able to escape, but it is also part of being a vigilant parent.
"You're trying to protect your child. That's your responsibility," she said.
Robinson Chamberlain was abducted in June 2002, about three weeks after Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her home in Salt Lake City.
The women — both survivors, moms and advocates — have spoken on panels and on television specials together. They also teamed up to develop a film on Robinson Chamberlain's abduction.
Then Kara Robinson, she was at a friend's house watering plants when she was approached by a well-groomed man who said he needed to drop off some pamphlets for the people who lived in the home. Initially, there were no red flags, she said.
But after moving closer to her, the man, later identified as serial killer Richard Evonitz, pulled out a gun, pressed it to her neck and forced her into a large storage bin that was stowed on the back seat of his car.
After being terrorized in the man's home for 18 hours, Robinson Chamberlain escaped while Evonitz slept. Her astute observations about her surroundings helped police later locate him and engage in a high-speed chase in an attempt to capture him. It ended with Evonitz taking his own life.
Evidence recovered from Evonitz's home, which police located with Robinson Chamberlain's assistance, was instrumental in solving the murders of three young women that had occurred five years before her abduction.
Domestic violence prevention resources
- Utah Domestic Violence Coalition operates a confidential statewide, 24-hour domestic abuse hotline at 1-800-897-LINK (5465). Resources are also available online: udvc.org. The statewide child abuse and neglect hotline is 1-855-323-DCFS (3237).
- The Utah Division of Child and Family Services offers counseling, teaches parenting skills and conflict resolution and can connect families with community resources. Its goal is to keep children with their family when it is "possible and safe." Visit dcfs.utah.gov/contact-us/ or call 801-538-4100.
- The Christmas Box House acts as a temporary shelter for children and can provide them with new clothing and shoes, among other services. Call the Salt Lake office at 801-747-2201 or the Ogden office at 801-866-0350.