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Human Trafficking Awareness Month: Mohave County coalition takes aim at child sex trafficking

Child trafficking doesn’t only speak to semi-trucks full of children being whisked away by their abusers, as those abusers have become more nuanced in how they prey on children. Be it through social media or by pretending to be trustworthy and caring, a new coalition is reminding locals that the danger is real, but also combatable, with the help of the community as a whole.

Back in February, a month after 2020’s National Human Trafficking Awareness Month in January, a group of local stakeholders including law enforcement personnel and medical professionals got together to discuss human trafficking and what could be done do combat it locally. Enter the Mohave County Domestic Violence/Human Trafficking Coalition.

“A lot of times they think when we talk about human trafficking that it’s the big, semi-bus full of people,” said Barbie Nielson with Arizona Youth Partnership and the coalition. “That’s not all we’re talking about; it’s anything like force, fraud or coercion.”

Kelly Tanner is the director of Homeless Youth Services at Arizona Youth Partnership. She oversees runaway and homeless youth shelters, sex trafficking funding and opioid-effected youth funding.

“Sometimes kids don’t even know they’ve been trafficked because they’ve had survival sex to get food, shelter, sometimes drugs,” Tanner said. “But yes, we do see those on a regular basis. I will tell you we see it more with our female population than we do the male.”

Tanner then provided some examples of trafficking. She said sometimes family members enlist their children to have sex in order to obtain drugs, and that trafficking can also be generational.

“If a parent or an aunt, sometimes even a grandparent, has made money that way in the past, they pass on the knowledge of how to do that and how to traffic,” Tanner said.

And she said LGBTQ children are “very high risk” for being trafficked because of demand. Kids are also trafficking themselves through social media sites.

“It’s hard to track” Tanner said. “These youths are putting themselves out there for money.”

Nielson and Tanner explained there are two kinds of pimps that draw youths into a trafficking lifestyle: Romeo and gorilla pimps. The former showers the victim with gifts and attention in order to take advantage of the “relationship.”

“A lot of these kids come from broken homes where they’re needing that acceptance, they’re needing someone to give them that attention so they shower them with gifts and promise them the world,” Nielson said. “And then all of a sudden it turns to ‘Well, if you love me then you’re going to go do this.’”

Gorilla pimps, however, don’t disguise their intentions from the start. Tanner said trafficking can speak to force, fraud and coercion. For example, “If you don’t do this for me I’ll kill your family or I’ll beat you up.”

Tanner also spoke about the trafficking dangers for runaway youths. She said that within 48 hours of running away, 25% are approached by a trafficker. Those predators then offer help with food, lodging, cellphone bills and more.

“I have never had a girl that I have served that I know of that has been killed, but I’ve definitely seen girls physically beat up, mutilated, and it is horrifying,” Tanner said. “It is so horrifying, and they still cover for the person who did it to them and still be loyal to that person because that attachment is so strong.”

Knowing that trafficking applies to far more than just busloads of victims, Mohave County stakeholders came together to address the problem. Included in the coalition are law enforcement agencies, the Mohave County Department of Public Health, faith-based communities, Kingman Regional Medical Center, Southwest Behavioral Health, Kingman Aid to Abused People, the probation department, local schools and more.

The coalition will also work with The McCain Institute, Training and Resources United to Stop Trafficking, and Sisters of the Streets.

“Everyone has been willing to jump in and be a part of the solution,” Tanner said.

The coalition will utilize a three-year $370,000 grant from the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime to build resources as well as inform the community and increase awareness. The coalition plans to hire a full-time case manager who will be able to refer victims to services they need, be they financial, counseling or something else.

“Year one is really building up that capacity so that we can start serving these victims and getting them the resources that they need, and then hopefully building the financial portion so that we can continue this after the grant has run out,” Nielson said.

“We really want to have a holistic approach within our community, bringing all of the stakeholders to the table who are able to serve the victims to create survivors,” Tanner said. “That’s really the goal.”

Entrance to the coalition is by invitation only, however, Nielson said community members can still assist in the effort by educating themselves on trafficking. On that note, should a person believe they have identified a victim, they can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

Nielson recommended that parents familiarize themselves with what social media sites their children use, as well as what’s on their cellphones and gaming devices. Also of vital importance is communication. Self-education is important as well, Tanner said.

Both coalition members said children need to be sure they know who they’re talking to online. Nielson added that once a pornographic picture is sent to a predator, it won’t just stop there.

“And remembering that it happens right here, it’s happening in your own backyard and your child is not immune,” Tanner said.

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