SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah students gathered in the S.J. Quinney College of Law building grew still Friday as an actress read the words of a human trafficking victim.
The students listened as 14-year-old Holly Austin Smith's story was told.
Holly wrote she was a depressed girl who thought she was running to possibility, adventure and freedom provided by an older man. Instead, she found herself in a sex trafficking ring. The man turned out to be "a manipulative and menacing pimp."
Holly was forced and coerced into working in Atlantic City, N.J., overnight until she was spotted by a police as being underage.
A panel of officials who have dealt with instances of human trafficking also addressed the students during a roundtable discussion, informing them that trafficking is prevalent in Utah.
"This is the plague of our society today," said Timothy Ballard, founder and CEO of Operation Underground Railroad. "There’s more slaves today, 27 million, than ever existed during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This is a huge problem.”
The U.S. Department of State's "Trafficking in Persons" June 2013 report defines trafficking as "the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud or coercion."
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 also includes "involuntary servitude, slavery or practices similar to slavery, debt bondage and forced labor."
Ballard previously was employed by the federal government, working undercover as a purveyor of child sex to buy real children to save them.
"They really are slaves," he said. "I've held these children in my arms. I've seen what slavery is."
The roundtable also focused on prostitution and workforce trafficking, specifically in Utah.
"For us to think in Utah that human trafficking doesn't exist we've got something to learn," Salt Lake City Police Lt. Fred Ross said.
One of the biggest missions for those in law enforcement is more education because situations change so quickly in the streets, Ross said.
He said his first understanding of human trafficking came from episodes of "Law & Order."
Since then, Ross has seen a situation where a young woman was trafficked and a victim to her stepfather. His eyes were opened to the trafficking happening on the major highways through Utah after investigating a few trafficking cases at truck stops.
Kirk Torgensen, with the Utah Attorney General's Office, said many Utahns think certain things don't happen in the Beehive State. He even believed that to be the case with trafficking until he attending a program in the East that made him question whether Utah had a problem.
"We found we have a problem," he said. "The problem was in obvious places."
Since then, Torgensen said, local law enforcement has tried to become better educated and look at prostitution cases differently, asking if there may be something more to the situation.
"We have got to get out to the police officers,” he said. “Until that happens, we’re going to miss cases.”
House Minority Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, said there is a skewed perception about prostitution.
Seelig said many people believe a woman who works as a prostitute is happy, has personal power in what she is doing, or that taking off her clothes is an art. There is also the common belief that if she didn't like it, she could get out of the situation.
Seelig said that is absolutely not the case, and it is knowledge that is holding the community back from doing something about human trafficking.
"Once you get real (with facts about human trafficking), then we’ve allowed this to go on for so long. It says something about ourselves,” she said.
Without specific and localized data, Seelig said, many Utahns won't believe the problem exists. She called on the student audience members in search of research projects to make human trafficking numbers a reality.