SALT LAKE CITY — Five people were arrested Aug. 23 on suspicion of crimes in the sex trade: two woman, three men, for actions in Nevada and Southern Utah.
But as the stories were sorted out, one young woman was found to be 17 years old. The arrest went away and the path changed from that of perpetrator to victim of sex trafficking.
"The victim in the situation will not be charged but she will be treated like the victim that she actually is," according to John Lines, Utah assistant special agent in charge with the United States Department of Homeland Security.
And what of the people in their 20s? When did they get involved? Who are the victims, who are the criminals, and is law enforcement and society ready to offer help?
The initial arrest and potential for a young teen to continue in the sex trade after turning 18 reveals the need for more training and resources among law enforcement and those in the community who can help rescue those who are trafficked, those working to help victims say.
The teen arrested in St. George was one of the estimated 100,000 children and teens exploited through commercial sex trade or trafficked in the United States each year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Many girls enter the sex trade between 12 and 14 years old, according to a 2008 report by Shared Hope International, a non-profit group that works to eliminate sex-trafficking.
Some, including law enforcement, question the culpability of women above the age of 18 who are engaged in the sex trade, citing their probable manipulation and young age of entering into the lifestyle.
"More often than not the women involved in these type of investigations aren't as involved as voluntarily as I think the general public would like to believe," St. George police Sgt. Johnny Heppler, who supervises the Fraudulent Identification and Security Threat Unit, said.
The investigation in St. George is ongoing, but authorities in the area are unclear what the next step is.
"We've never faced this situation before so I don't really know what the courts would do with it," Heppler said.
They are working to connect the teen with resources and find ways, either in the court or out of it, to help her escape fully from the lifestyle. This may prove to be more difficult than they realize.
Savannah Saunders understands what the St. George teen is facing. Saunders story starts out similar to most kids who are trafficked. She was the child of divorced parents and bounced between her parent’s homes. She was sexually abused between the ages of six and 13. Her parents were unaware of this, she said, and thought she was manifesting the effects of a child of divorce, rather than the effects of having been raped.
“I was highly, highly sexualized at a very young age and susceptible to a lot more abuses because I had already experienced that first abuse and it was never taken care of,” Saunders said.
In eighth grade, she dropped out of school. She lived in various friends’ homes and became involved with drugs. At 16 she was brought into the sex trade by someone she knew and was involved for nine months.
“There was no locked door. There was no cage I was kept in but I was terrified for my life to leave and terrified I wouldn’t know how to take care of myself if I did leave,” she said.
Eventually, she left the lifestyle, but it was not without its hardships. She took off to another state instead and began working toward her GED. After another sexual assault, relapse into drugs and an additional year of homelessness, she once again cleaned her life up.
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