As the Crossroads of the West, Utah is host to many diverse industries, and unfortunately, one of them is human trafficking. Most people do not realize that millions of men, women and children are currently enslaved in human trafficking around the world—even here in Utah. Where we excel as a state in economic health, mobility and employment, we struggle to address this industry of slavery in our midst and the desperate need to provide long-term care to survivors who exit trafficking.
Estimated to be a $32 billion per year industry, human trafficking is seconded only by drug trafficking as the most profitable transnational crime. The U.S. Department of State explains "human trafficking" as an “umbrella term for 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.”
People under the age of 18 are particularly vulnerable to predators looking to exploit them, especially missing or "runaway" youths. Trafficker recruitment tactics of promised protection, companionship, shelter and food are often coupled with forced drug use, mental abuse, violence and other methods used to keep victims enslaved.
In Utah, youths found participating in commercial sex could be charged as criminals for prostitution until state law changed in 2016 with HB206. Through Rep. Angela Romero’s legislative work, hundreds of youths in Utah who were arrested every year for prostitution are now recognized as victims, not perpetrators, and are taken to DCFS instead of jail.
Research has shown a staggering majority of human trafficking survivors have a history of being physically and/or sexually abused and neglected as children. As a citizenry, I know we care greatly to help these youths reach their unique potentials and heal. Federal, state, local and philanthropic funds support a broad spectrum of ongoing supportive services and housing to help victims of child abuse.
Despite legislative improvements and every structure of support available, the tragic reality remains that an uncounted number of abused and exploited youths are not rescued from situations of abuse in their own homes, nor on the streets and at the payment of johns. What astonishes me is the cessation of compassion and understanding throughout our culture for those many, many individuals our systems of support and protection never rescued and perhaps never even recognized.
As abused and exploited youths grow into adulthood without the skills and support to build healthy, stable lives, too many of these girls and boys our care and services were designed to help are now the women and men much of society wishes to eradicate from our communities, shouldered with blame and little hope. In many areas, residents and business owners point to "the prostitutes" as the face of blight and community problems.
Over the last several years of local work to recognize and grapple with the need for improved services for those experiencing homelessness, I have been moved by the cultivated compassion I have witnessed in our community for homelessness as an issue. The time is now to build better services for the most complex population in our state — women, girls, men and boys who are survivors of human trafficking.
Around the U.S. and Canada, local governments are working with community stakeholders to create long-term, trauma-informed residential facilities, offering residents a safe, empowered and supported path to healing.
Locally, we have begun the work to achieve such a facility. The Salt Lake City Council appropriated funds, matched by District Attorney Sim Gill, to conduct a needs assessment of human trafficking in our city. This information, when complete, will allow us to more clearly make the case for a survivor facility. Other partners like the Junior League of Salt Lake City, local domestic violence shelters, Backyard Broadcast and the Asian Association of Utah, are helping cultivate awareness and support to achieve this goal.
I call on you, our community and business leaders, law enforcement, churches and politicians to join our efforts and finally begin to better address survivors' needs.
Erin Mendenhall is the councilwoman representing Salt Lake City's 5th District.