by JJ Hensley
The Arizona Republic
[Edited for length.]
Human trafficking is not human smuggling.
But law enforcement and civic groups say it is a problem nationwide, and more Arizonans will hear that message as experts try to increase public awareness of the problem.
What is it? Simply put, forcing people against their will to work for others' profit. It could be a prostitute walking the streets for a pimp. It could be a cowering immigrant toiling in a sweatshop in a state of indentured servitude.
A massive effort to alter public perception of the nature and extent of the problem is under way. But it is complicated by the fact that human trafficking is often intertwined with - and hard to distinguish from - the more commonly recognized problems of illegal immigration and prostitution.
Many victims are like "Chantel Rice," a young Phoenix woman who became a prostitute at 16 at the behest of her boyfriend and ended up working the streets of several West Coast cities, moving up to Phoenix strip clubs before pulling out of her downward spiral.
There Rice discovered she was not alone.
"A lot of the girls either started dancing or seeing clients outside the clubs at a young age, like 15, 16, 17," Rice said. "It's really sad, and all too common at this point."
The Arizona Republic has agreed to use Rice's pseudonym rather than her real name in order to protect her identity. Police, attorneys and advocates hope they can persuade the public to recognize girls like Rice as trafficking victims rather than as prostitutes, hastening efforts to identify and help them.
That new view of an old problem is gaining currency in unlikely places around the Valley - student groups, churches, even Girl Scout troops.
Even so, public sentiment is slow to change because:
- Clearly defining the problem is difficult. Most evidence is largely anecdotal, and years of inconsistent data collection makes it tough to quantify.
- The victims themselves are often unwilling to seek help or identify themselves as victims, let alone cooperate with law-enforcement agents trying to jail their alleged oppressors.
- Law enforcement and the general public can sometimes view the victims as criminals rather than people needing help.
Faced with such complacency, advocates have taken to delivering a message with shock value: that girls as young as 13 are apt to be picked up at shopping malls and thrust into a life of prostitution.
While there are cases to illustrate that alarming message - Phoenix detectives say they've seen victims as young as 8 - the reality is more complicated.
Identifying the victims
Identifying victims, particularly minors, can be frustrating for law enforcement. Without proper training, they often do not recognize signs of involuntary servitude. Instead, they see victims as runaways, prostitutes or the working poor.
And that's how trafficking victims are taught to think of themselves - as isolated and dependent tools at someone else's disposal, unable to fend for themselves and unlikely to find any help. That powerful psychology is how a pimp controls a young prostitute - not so much with guns as with head games.
When police do identify victims, they are not always cooperative.
"Many times we get a juvenile in custody for the first time, and it's 'F-you cops,' " said Phoenix police Sgt. Clay Sutherlin of the Phoenix Police Department's human-trafficking task force.
In recent years, police have focused more time on getting girls to speak frankly. They've also focused on getting others in law enforcement to view the girls as human-trafficking victims instead of simply as prostitutes. That victim-focused approach is starting to pay off, with more girls going into diversion programs and more police officers making sure they have a chance to get there.
"Even our biggest, toughest vice detectives, they're on board," Sutherlin said.
As police perspectives change, advocates say the next steps are to educate the public and align state laws with federal statutes that target traffickers.
But hurdles remain.
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