SALT LAKE CITY — Each year in Utah, scores of young people barely of legal age fall prey to predators and are forced into indentured servitude or sex slavery. Local advocates say the time is now to break the cycle of victimhood.
As part of a worldwide art installation during Human Trafficking Awareness month, dozens of activists filled the sidewalk cracks on the south side of the state Capitol with red sand in an effort to raise awareness about human trafficking. Several artists and advocates gathered on Saturday to remember victims and bring attention to those who have “fallen through the cracks” into the quagmire of trafficking.
At least 85 percent of people are completely unaware of the issue of human trafficking, said Terry Palmer, director of Backyard Broadcast — a teen awareness and human trafficking prevention organization. But that trend is changing, she noted.
"We're identifying it more," Palmer said.
The organization, launched three years ago, has clubs — or "stations" — at Cottonwood, Kearns, Skyline, Davis and Judge Memorial Catholic high schools.
According to Backyard Broadcast's website, youths who are vulnerable to sex trafficking are generally young teens, youth who have experienced abuse, have unstable home lives and older boyfriends. The average age a child is forced to have sex for money is 13 years old, the organization's website stated.
"(However), the people that are falling through the cracks are not just youth, but the 18 to 21 years olds — the aged-out foster care kid or kids who are on the street ... who are engaging in dangerous activities like drug use and alcohol abuse," Palmer said. "They're already having ‘survivor sex’ — engaging in sexual activity to get their needs met. To get a place to stay, to get some food."
She said the people in these kinds of circumstances are easy prey for predators.
"They become very vulnerable to a pimp or a trafficker, and because they are 18, we're not really looking out for them," she said.
Data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children indicates that at least 100,000 American children are being trafficked every year.
The typical underage victim in the U.S. will enter prostitution or pornography between ages 12 to 14, and is typically sold for sex 10 to 15 times per day, said Fernando Rivero, chairman of the Utah Trafficking in Persons Task Force’s education committee and member of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault. In contrast to adult women, who earn an average of $20 to $50 per hour, children can make up to $400 per hour for their pimp or trafficker, he told an audience at the University of Utah last year.
Traffickers tend to target vulnerable populations like homeless youth and victims of prior abuse by offering to meet the children’s basic needs for food, money and affection, he noted.
Today, Utah lawmakers are crafting legislation to combat the issue of human trafficking. Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said she and her colleagues are working on bills that match similar efforts underway at the national level in Congress.
"We need to look at ways to help them become survivors and self-sufficient so that they don't fall back into patterns of trafficking," she explained. "When someone has been exploited and they don't have the resources to empower themselves, they turn to an environment that is unhealthy."
She said there is an effort among legislators to appropriate funding to help provide resources for victims of human trafficking.
"We, as a state and as a community, need to ensure that we're protecting vulnerable populations," Romero said. Informing the community about the issue is also a key component to raising awareness, she said.
"We want to make sure we're educating the everyday Utahn to identify when a child or vulnerable person is (at risk)," she said. "Human trafficking is happening in our state, and we need to (provide) the tools to identify it."