By Zenaida Sengo • The Times-Independent
In a revelation that will likely shock the senses of most Grand County residents, sex trafficking is occurring in Moab, according to the people in a position to know.
Moab’s Marriott Springhill Hotel on Nov. 29 hosted an educational event on sex trafficking in the nation – and in the local community. Like other organized criminal enterprises, it is a business, albeit one in which humans are the product. Children or adults are abducted, held captive, manipulated and traded or sold for the purpose of sex. The hotel industry is particularly at risk due to its combination of renting private rooms and hiring waves of seasonal young workers both within and across state or federal borders
“You never know who is being held against their will,” said Dianna Barlow, Utah’s Price-area representative for Operation Underground Railroad, who spoke at the event. OUR is a global human rights organization dedicated to protecting the lives of young women, children and any individual forced into continued sexual abuse. The team members work undercover with local law enforcement to arrest and prosecute perpetrators, but often the first hurdle to address the problem is for local communities to acknowledge the problem exists. A former special agent with Homeland Security founded OUR.
“People don’t think it’s happening in their towns, but it is,” said Barlow, “Teachers have told me they can point out the students they know are being trafficked.”
Maddy Fisk, the executive director of Seekhaven, the Moab-based support network for victims of domestic abuse, agreed with Barlow. “Trafficking in all forms is happening in our community. If Seekhaven is seeing it, then people have the opportunity to observe it,” she said. She said that traffickers even walk into Seekhaven on their own looking to exploit the resources and donations intended for victims. One red flag is when the victims aren’t present to speak for themselves, or don’t have control of their own papers and information, Fisk continued. “J1 visa (temporary work visa) recipients are particularly at risk.
Earlier this year, the FBI uncovered an operation in Blanding where several adult women were being forced into prostitution, Fisk said. In Ogden and Midvale, authorities found two other illegal operations, and arrested a man attempting to traffic a 15-year-old girl. Authorities in St. George have seen numerous arrests relating to prostitution and sex trafficking involving 17-year-old girls between 2013 and 2018.
In a substantial amount of cases, prosecutors charged the victims independently for engaging in prostitution, despite being minors. Thirty states in the U.S. allow for children to be held accountable for being prostituted. Utah only recently outlawed the prosecution of juvenile prostitutes, along with 20 other states, in 2016. Young victims who’ve endured years of abuse only to end up in detention centers instead of care facilities might turn to illicit drug use or alcohol to cope, according to presenters. OUR provides victims with aftercare, safety, counseling and healthy food.
There are 27 million people being trafficked annually, two million who are children, according to OUR. About 300 cases of sexually trafficked children are prosecuted in the U.S., which is the largest producer and consumer of child pornography worldwide. The average age of a trafficked victim is 13, and the average price per-night for them is $300, a price that increases if a victim is younger, according to OUR.
Former Homeland Security Special Agent Tim Ballard founded OUR after realizing that he needed to leave his government job of more than 10 years to fight a war against sex trafficking. Barlow also changed her life to join the fight.
“I opened an article posted to Facebook by a friend. I had never even heard of sex trafficking until then. I was blown away by what I learned and couldn’t believe it was happening here in the United States,” said Barlow, “Children as young as 3-years-old are being abducted and used for sex. How could I know that was happening and not drop everything to change it?”
Utah State University’s Small Enterprise Education and Development (SEED) Program Director Andy Thunell presented on the program’s efforts to help those most at risk. SEED has partnered with OUR to fund and deliver business skills in places like the Dominican Republic and the Philippines. They aim to offer impoverished women an alternative for survival to avoid having to turn to prostitution. Students in the program travel abroad to teach business in the communities of sex trafficking victims after they’ve gone through sufficient aftercare.
OUR and USU aren’t the only education groups to deal with sex trafficking in Utah. Truckers Against Trafficking is an advocacy group that educates the industry on appropriate social and sexual behaviors. TAT is a unique group of advocates well positioned to catch traffickers. Truckers travel long distances at all hours, often spending the night in seemingly vacant towns, pullouts, gas stations and rest stops.
Truckers represent a prime clientele to whom traffickers can sell the services of victims – a largely male group lined up in the middle of nowhere. Truckers partnered with a group of women to found Truckers Against Trafficking, which also distributes materials at travel stops and weigh stations that help truckers identify signs of trafficking.
Truckers trained by TAT display stickers on their trucks and victims have knocked on their door and been saved.
Through community outreach, TAT has helped to change legislation in some states to expand the required curriculum for obtaining a commercial driver’s license. CDL training generally covers the basics in the state handbook, but some CDL training schools can opt to cover a more comprehensive information on sex trafficking and award their truckers a higher level of certificate, making them more valuable to employers.
Gail Harding, owner and instructor for Utah Trucking Academy, said she extends more coursework to include information on sex trafficking, better social skills and respect for women. “I’m not a CDL mill,” said Harding. “I take more time with fewer students and drivers come out of my academy better prepared for what life on the road is really like.” The more comprehensive curriculum, which was suggested to her by Pilot Flying J’s a few years ago, adds an extra 25 hours and $120 cost to the course.
Pilot Flying J’s partnered with TAT in 2014 and Love’s Travel Stop did so two years ago. Maverik, the most widely distributed fuel and truck stop of the three, however, has yet to join with TAT. Maverik was unavailable for comment.
Harding said she thinks she might have the only female-owned academy in Utah and the only one that covers sex trafficking. When discussing sexism and whether she’s experienced it as a female business owner in an industry almost entirely dominated by men she said, “Yes. Definitely. But I think things are changing. It’s one of the only careers where women make the same amount as men do … and they are learning it’s a career opportunity they can support themselves with. I am really that happy people are finally starting to talk about these things.”
As for her own vulnerable to trafficking industry, Moab Marriot’s Sales Manager Carla Gregory couldn’t verify she’s witnessed trafficking at Springhill or other hotels in Moab. But she was concerned enough to take local action. Marriot’s managing company, Lodging Dynamics Hospitality Group, began showing OUR videos at its semi-annual conference.
“It was very emotional,” said Gregory. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”