Utahns work to provide resources for victims of trafficking. The state has made progress, but still has a long way to go.
;This is ingrained within our culture and it's going to take a paradigm shift for people to start viewing these women as victims instead of you know, prostitutes when they’re being exploited by a dominant culture. —Savannah Saunders

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’s Story

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.

“I always had this urge to be like somebody, you know? But every time I would get on my feet somebody would knock me down,” she said.

She and her husband met when she was 18 and began raising his daughter and had three more children together. Eventually she received counseling to deal with anxiety and depression that arose as symptoms from the trauma of her youth.

“I never thought I was worth more than what I was doing and where I was put,” she said.

She started college with a photography certificate in mind, but is now moving toward her doctorate in social work.

She is hoping to be elected to public office at some point and work toward increasing public recognition and prevention of trafficking.

“This is ingrained within our culture and it's going to take a paradigm shift for people to start viewing these women as victims instead of you know, prostitutes when they’re being exploited by a dominant culture,” she said.

The other thing that needs to change, she said, it how law enforcement and the public refer to these cases.

"We're not talking about it as rape for profit. We're talking about it as prostitution to soften the blow."


A task force was created within the Utah Attorney General's Office in October 2012 and since that time has worked to create a better environment for these victims.

Tammie Atkin with the Attorney General's office helped create the task force.

“We wanted to find out where we are deficient and try to fill in those gaps with a whole bunch of people,” she said.

Any victim of crime in Utah is entitled to $3,000 worth of counseling, Atkin said, as long as they apply through the Utah Office of Victims and Crimes. If the youth is not from the United States, they will qualify for services from the Division of Health and Human Services, as long as they testify in the prosecution of the trafficker.

If they are from the United States, they will receive services from the Division of Child and Family Services, as long as the division becomes aware of them. They can receive family therapy, individual counseling, drug and alcohol treatment or whatever other resource they need to help them with the transition out of the trade.

Atkin is a victim advocate and said for her, there are not enough resources specifically catered to victims of the sex trade. Ideally, she said, there would be a stand-alone facility, with counseling and housing for victims of trafficking. However, she said, "it all takes money," and the victims "require a lot of services for a long period of time."

Gregory Ferbrache, on the Utah Attorney General's Secure Strike Force team, said that currently victims of the sex trade can have access to recovery services, which are usually provided through the Division of Child and Family Services. However, the city is still developing specific services for victims of trafficking.

"I don't know that the community is prepared to take on a vast number of human trafficking victims," he said.

However, the strike force is applying for grants to get funding for sanctuaries of victims. Ferbrache also said he is trying to find a way to provide long-term services to these victims.

Law enforcement is also beginning to consider the possibility that an adult woman arrested for sexual solicitation may have been threatened or coerced into the trade.

"I do think that's changing and I do think law enforcement is taking that into consideration now," Atkin said.

Taking this approach to all sexual solicitation cases may not be as simple as it seems.


"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:, Twitter: whitevs7