Utah church helps free victims of human trafficking

Published: Friday, Jan. 14 2011 10:54 p.m. MST

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."

To learn more about Operation 61 visit the website ww.operation61.org. To learn more about the Summit Adventure Church, visit www.summitadventurechurch.com. Services are held Sunday's at 10:30 at 6671 Redwood Road, West Jordan.

e-mail: kcox@desnews.com

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