Pulling victims from the sex trade, one person at a time

Published: Saturday, Aug. 31 2013 7:40 p.m. MDT


"Each case that we handle we approach on a case by case basis," said Blake Nakamura, chief deputy at the District Attorney's Office, which prosecutes cases related to sex trafficking.

He added that these cases are not black and white.

"The law rarely operates like that," he said.

In a hypothetical case where a 16-year-old was recruited into the sex trade at a young age, he said, they will take that into consideration when trying to come up with what he calls a "just resolution." If the individual was exploiting someone younger than them, though, they may face punitive measures.

Within the past 10 to 12 years, law enforcement in the state has "slowly been evolving" to a victim-centered approach, according to Atkin. This means that they are shifting toward prosecuting those who are running the sex trafficking rings, instead of the workers.

Although the state does not have specific services for victims of trafficking, those who are victimized qualify for services to treat ills that may contribute to their continuing in the lifestyle: homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse or lack of life skills.

The state also has harsher punishments for those who traffic minors. Aggravated exploitation of prostitution is a second degree felony, and when it involves a child, it is bumped up to a first degree felony.

Utah's aggressive prosecution and recent focus on the victim may bump up its grade on Shared Hope's Protected Innocence Challenge. In 2011, the state received an "F"; in 2012, a "D."

The report looks at the extent each state criminalizes youth in the sex trade, how the state looks to reduce demand for child sex solicitation, how they punish traffickers, how they punish those who benefit from child sex solicitation, what protections are in place for child victims and how well states investigate and prosecute these cases.

Filling in the gaps

Part of what is so difficult for many victims of the sex trade is the repeated message that they receive from society and from those who exploit them, that they are to blame and that they have no worth.

This is something Jamie Heiner faced when she decided to go public with sexual abuse that she suffered almost daily for 16 months, starting in ninth grade. When her case went to court, she said she thought everyone thought she was dirty.

One day, she came home and found roses on her porch, with a note from a girl she had never met. Lauren Wilko left her number and said to call if she needed anything. Through this experience Heiner found support and found a way to serve others by opening a Backyard Broadcast station at her school.

Backyard Broadcast is an organization composed of high school kids who raise awareness of sex trafficking. The youth also raise funds to pay for training for police officers.

Two of their station chiefs, Heiner and Wilko, want to reach out to the young woman who was arrested in St. George. Both Heiner and Wilko are former victims of sexual abuse, although Heiner prefers to call herself a survivor.

Wilko said it was important to her to allow Heiner the choice of whether or not to respond to her request. She said she hopes to do the same for the young woman who was arrested last weekend. If they find her, Wilko wants to drop off flowers and a note encouraging her to reach out when she's ready.

She said she wants to "give her a reason for everything that she's been through, that she can act make something good out of something bad and that she can actually be a beacon for other people."

Heiner said she hopes to share with the girl the message that she can decide how to react to what has been done to her, and that she gets to choose her life from this day forward.

"Remember that everybody loves you and that just because somebody chose to take advantage of you in that way, [it] doesn't make you a horrible person."

Email: wevans@deseretnews.com, Twitter: whitevs7

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