A member of a Gilbert-based nonprofit group says a recent step taken by Gov. Jan Brewer to combat human trafficking is necessary to stem the tide of an escalating issue across the state.
Brewer’s step came April 22 with the approval of House Bill 2454, which stiffens penalties for trafficking adults for prostitution and targets businesses such as massage parlors and escort services that advertise online. The bill requires escort advertisers to post their license numbers and have written permission of any women they show to have evidence they are not minors.
“Arizona just took a huge leap in the fight against trafficking by increasing the minimum penalties for child prostitution conviction from 10 to 24 years in prison. It sends a clear message that this will not be tolerated in Arizona,” said Lori Regnier, vice president of the Starbright Foundation.
Operated out of Gilbert more than three years ago, Regnier said the Starbright Foundation works alongside organizations in Phoenix to fight against human trafficking. The foundation helps children by offering a safe environment where they can live and begin the healing process from exploitation, and it provides crisis counseling, trauma therapy and education for people up to the age of 18.
Starbright also promotes awareness in the community on the escalating crimes of child pornography and exploitation.
“We offer specialized care for victims of cultic, clergy, incest, mental, physical and sexual abuses, as well as comfort for their families,” she said.
Starbright is establishing safe houses, which provide maximum safety for endangered children and an environment for healing. The organization is raising funds to build the safe houses that can house between 10 to 12 people at a time.
“Funding has been difficult for the safe house expansion because it is such a hard, dark subject. Sometimes it is difficult to understand why it has to be so hard to help children who are hurting,” said Regnier. “Arizona needs work when it comes to protecting our children and it just should not be this hard.”
Sex trafficking of young children is a very profitable crime in Arizona with the average age of trafficking in Arizona being 13 to 14 years old, according to the Polaris Project.
“Arizona has become fertile ground for sex traffickers thanks to its efficient transportation corridors, a large resort community and mild climate that brings conferences and other tourist attractions year-round,” said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work in the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research.
Due to the rise of trafficking, police departments across the Valley like the Mesa and Scottsdale police departments and the Phoenix Police Department Vice Enforcement are cracking down on people promoting the act.
Detective Domenick Kaufman, with the Mesa Police Department, said in an email the department began researching sex trafficking approximately two years ago, and its special victims unit has partnered with numerous groups like the Hickey Family Foundation, O’Connor House, Phoenix Police and the FBI.
Kaufman said officers have received training to deal with this issue, in particular how to detect warning signs and how to respond to it. Additional steps include the establishment of investigative protocols and the implementations of detectives who specialize in sex trafficking in the Special Victims Unit (SVU).
He said the department isn’t sure if there has been an increase in trafficking incidents in the East Valley, but it has seen an increase in awareness of it that has led to more tips and cases.
“It is extremely difficult to track and measure this activity, but we are trying,” he said.
The Tempe Police Department recently conducted an investigation of human trafficking and prostitution that had detectives target suspects soliciting underage girls for sex acts, females soliciting acts of prostitution, and pimps. Part of this operation included detectives contacting women who had posted escort ads online. The investigation later determined these women were offering sexual favors for money.
In total, the Tempe Police Department arrested 16 people for prostitution and 14 for child for prostitution, said Lt. Michael Pooley in a press release.
Another aspect of HB 2454 is the addition of victimhood as a defense against charges of prostitution. According to the bill, people younger than 18 arrested for prostitution have an additional means of defending themselves if the act was “a direct result of being a victim of sex trafficking.”
“Anything that can be done to help protect our children, our Valley’s most vulnerable, is a positive move, Let’s make sure they are recognized as victims,” she said.
Children tied to sex trafficking are often from the greater Phoenix area, as a study by Roe-Sepowitz states research indicates, “minors sex trafficked in the Phoenix area are more likely from here while adult sex trafficking victims appear to be brought here by their traffickers.”
Roe-Sepowtiz said the majority of individuals who get lured into prostitution and sex trafficking have experienced emotional, physical and sexual abuse in childhood and are victims of domestic violence, neglect or abandonment. Often they run away from their homes, suffer from homelessness and have endured a life of poverty.
“Many of them do not understand normal love because they are missing pieces of what they need in their lives,” she said. “Intimacy, caring and trust have all been taken away by adults and they have nowhere else to turn.”
That’s when victims usually fall prey to sex traffickers and pimps, who convince them that they love and care about them, Roe-Sepowtiz said.
“Pimps and sex traffickers are working 24/7 and we simply don’t have enough man power and resources to combat this issue effectively,” she added.
Human trafficking recently became the No. 1 criminal industry in the world, with as many as 300,000 children at risk for sexual exploitation each year in the United States, according to the United States Department of Justice. A pimp can make $150,000-$200,000 per child each year and the average pimp has four to six girls, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Visit www.starbrightfoundation.org for more information about the organization.
• Kelly Kleber is a senior at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is an intern with the Tribune this semester. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.