Tracking down the trafficked

FBI task force may recover a record number of juvenile victims of sex trafficking this year

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In 2012, the FBI recovered 49 girls who were victims of sex trafficking in Denver. Some were runaways from broken homes, homes with a history of child abuse. Some may have been in and out of state care, including juvenile detention facilities, and had already been deemed “throwaway kids” by the system. Some were girls from the suburbs. They were white and African American, mostly, some Hispanic and some Asian. Their average age was 16. At a time when their peers were studying for drivers licenses and SATs, shopping for prom dresses and worrying about dates and who said what on Facebook, these girls were being pressured into selling themselves on the street, exchanging the sale of their bodies for food, a place to sleep or clothing. A handful were still attending school. Some of them may have encountered medical professionals, or even law enforcement, multiple times before being recognized as victims of trafficking.

As of the end of June, the Innocence Lost Task Force, a multi-jurisdictional effort to combat juvenile sex trafficking that can track traffickers across agency lines and responds to calls from Colorado and Wyoming, had recovered 25 children in Denver who were sex trafficking victims so far in 2013. The agency usually sees a spike over the summer months, putting them on track to set a record high for the number of sex trafficking victims recovered this year.

The task force has dedicated staff and officers from the FBI and police departments in Denver and Aurora and Arapahoe County. Before the task force was launched in January 2012, the FBI was recovering 10 to 15 juvenile sex trafficking victims each year. That number more than doubled just in the first year the task force existed.

The FBI says it’s recovering more victims because of better, broader, interagency police work. But one officer says who’s doing the trafficking and who the victims are is changing. However the crime evolves, the victims will continue to face trauma that takes a lifetime of work and a crew of professional help to manage.

As one of the largest cities in a five-state region, and sitting at crossroads of interstates 70 and 25, Denver falls prey to basic math — more people to sell product to. But exactly how prevalent the issue is remains unclear, both locally and internationally.

“We just don’t hear about it enough,” says Patrick Lechleitner, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations, which handles transnational trafficking. “We know that more of it exists than we know about. We just don’t know what we don’t know.”

The central issue to that, he says, starts with reporting — victims are unable or unwilling to come forward.

“Probably one of the biggest things is that it’s a really secretive crime and people don’t want to come forward on it,” Lechleitner says. “There’s a lot of extreme trauma.”

At Prax(us), a Denver-based organization that focuses on reaching homeless youth in domestic human trafficking situations, staff doesn’t say “victims of human trafficking” because people rarely self-identify that way.

“Never does anyone come up and say, ‘Hey this human trafficking thing, I’m a victim of human trafficking, can I have services?’” says Emily Lafferrandre, director of education and advocacy for Prax(us).

“It was hard to make judgments based on the occasional child that was being found that was involved in it, and there was no really central reporting of it either,” says Ricky Wright, the FBI coordinator for the Innocence Lost Task Force and a member of an interagency anti-trafficking working group that predates the task force. An agency might find a child involved in prostitution, but make the arrest for drugs or another delinquency, or just take a child home or to an agency that works with runaways — and no one stopped to collect the data on whether that child had been trafficked, he says.

Sometimes, an officer may not even recognize the signs of trafficking.

The first obstacle the task force encounters comes in the flat disbelief that an issue as horrifying as human trafficking, particularly child sex trafficking, can happen among the neatly manicured lawns and tidy store fronts of suburban America.

“Time and time again we heard, ‘Oh we don’t have that problem in our area. We certainly don’t have that,’” Wright says. “From time to time, some of these agencies stumble across problems or we’ve helped them recover a child in their jurisdiction and they’re like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. Maybe it does exist here. How do we find it? How do we look for it?’”

In addition to coordinating policing efforts, the task force has increased outreach and awareness programs to hospitals, schools, hotels and other businesses — there’s even a Truckers Against Trafficking, and they’ve done outreach with that group. They’ve seen a corresponding increase in the number and diversity of tips coming in, including one from Denver Public Schools. And they’re getting more referrals from law enforcement, often from the same officers, Wright says, who may have worked on a trafficking case in the past.

“They more readily recognize it, where other officers maybe aren’t,” Wright says. “So we’re getting calls from those agencies about ‘Hey, I stopped this car and it was an older male with a younger girl, and I asked questions and things just didn’t add up. I think it could be a trafficking situation.’”

Maybe the girl has little in her purse but lingerie and condoms. No identification. No money. Even if the officer isn’t able to get to the bottom of the situation on that stop, he can pass details on to the FBI, which may be able to use that information in ongoing investigations. They’ll track a suspected victim for weeks, even across state lines, before they’re able to conduct a sting to recover that victim.

But if the cops don’t know what they’re looking at in the first place, the case dead-ends.

“Without recognizing that it’s a trafficking situation, a lot of times we can’t get necessarily the help for the children to really get them out of it,” Wright says.

It’s the coordinated efforts and better policing that are leading to more recoveries, he says.

“I certainly don’t think that the problem has gotten worse in the last three years and that’s why we’re seeing more,” he says. “I think we’re just getting better at finding it.”

Recovering one child may provide intelligence about other victims or traffickers, which can increase recoveries, he adds.

But Sgt. Dan Steele, a Denver police officer who’s assigned full time to the task force — boots on the ground doing police work — has a different take. Steele came to the Rocky Mountain Safe Streets Task Force from vice in the Denver Police Department. A couple of other Denver detectives mentored him on trafficking, and his perspective started to shift. Then he was asked to lead an interview with a trafficking victim — a 14-year-old girl whose mother coerced her to prostitute herself and used the money to buy drugs.

“That pretty much changed my perspective on everything,” Steele says. “While I was supportive of all the anti-trafficking efforts, I was supportive of going after pimps, I was supportive of trying to get girls and women out of the life, that interview, though, really solidified my desire to do more than we were doing.”

Steele was on the ground floor with the launch of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Lost Task Force, which focuses on child victims of sex trafficking. As the Denver Police Department’s resident officer on the task force, he’s now considered their go-to source for information on trafficking. If Steele says he’s seeing a trend, says Denver Police Department spokesperson Sonny Jackson, that’s the official line from the Denver Police Department.

And Steele, a bit the McNulty to Wright’s Lt. Daniels, is not afraid to disagree with the party line.

Tips from outside agencies have increased recoveries, he agrees, and they’ve found better ways of identifying minors who are being prostituted. But the 14-year veteran of the Denver police force says there’s a new model for business developing in trafficking.

“Beginning right around 2006, until now, the numbers have gone up every year as a far as the number of minor females that show up to prostitution operations or that are contacted in that capacity,” Steele says. “The Denver Police Department did not change their approach as far as, we do escort stings, we do street prostitution, we do massage parlors, we do brothels. This is just the number of kids that are showing up. In that sense, I do think that it is getting a little worse. I also feel like we’re seeing a difference in the kind of people that are trafficking in minors.”

It’s not escort agencies or madams as much anymore. Young men — 21, 22, 23 years old, one as young as 17 — with a history of robbery, narcotics, criminal mischief — gang crimes — are starting to leave behind selling crack on Colfax for selling women who are often under 18. They seem to be learning, he says, that if you get a certain number of hits for a crime like narcotics, the prison sentence grows, or if you’re the one on the street corner selling crack, you’re going to get arrested, and it’s the same class of felony as trafficking a child. But a trafficker, a pimp, can stay off the streets and manipulate other women to post ads, drive the girls around and set them up with the hotel rooms.

“In other words, you can sit back, collect all the money, and really do no work, and the chance of you getting caught is less than it would be if you’re going out and committing bank robberies, for instance,” Steele says. The pimps may be so insulated from the day-to-day operation, buried behind layers of loyalty from the people who work beneath them, that the FBI can’t even identify them.

Lechleitner, with Homeland Security Investigations, says they’re seeing gangs involved in transnational trafficking as well, though to a lesser degree.

“It’s like, the high point of my gang life is to graduate to be a pimp,” Wright says. “And then I think, also, they realize that dealing drugs, you know, it costs money to get those drugs, and of course they’re making money and marking it up, but they only can sell those drugs once. They can sell a child or a human being 10 times a day and make an enormous amount of money.”

Some of the pimps adopt a boyfriend-type model, recruiting girls with low self esteem, promising to care for them, and slowly wearing away their boundaries as the life they’ve promised relies more and more on the income the girls make by prostituting themselves.

Success in policing trafficking is counted not in arrested perpetrators, but in recovered victims. The work recovering those victims often begins where their patrons start the search for them: on the Internet. Officers chase a tip on a missing girl whose family suspects her of being trafficked through social media or ads like those on

The search often ends in the back of a cop car, with FBI Victim Specialist Anne Darr waiting with a backpack full of supplies like food, water, basic hygiene items, flip-flops and warm, comfortable clothing.

Prax(us) also uses bags filled with water, snacks, clothing, sunscreen and hygiene items as a way of building a relationship.

With each victim, Darr conducts a needs assessment that starts with medical needs and basic needs like food and water, then moves through developing rapport and conducting a forensic interview. The youngest girl recovered in 2012 was a 13-year-old picked up “walking the track” on Colfax who hadn’t eaten in three days. In another case, a girl’s trafficker had taken away her personal hygiene items and she hadn’t been able to brush her teeth in days. Darr has watched girls quickly swap their dresses and high heels for the sweatpants and sweatshirt in the backpack, zipping the sweatshirt all the way to the top. The clothes make them feel comfortable and at ease, Darr says, and the fact that they’re freely given signals a change from a living situation in which food and a place to sleep at night have been bought with the currency of sex acts with strangers.

Darr says building trust starts with a simple question: She asks what their goals are.

“No pimp is going to ask what you want to be when you grow up,” she says. That question is the beginning of breaking down barriers with girls whose psychological impacts of being trafficked include a lack of faith in humanity.

“A lot of these girls feel like they’re in a black hole and they don’t know how to climb out of that black hole because they’re so deep,” Darr says. “They don’t know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and so my role is trying to help them see that and that somebody cares about them.”

Darr, who started her work with the bureau at a police department in Alaska working with trafficking victims from bush villages and Indian country, transferred to Colorado in 2010 and was recruited to work on the trafficking task force based on her experience.

Her favorite success story comes from the first girl recovered after she arrived in Colorado. The FBI followed a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children about an endangered runaway from Aurora, and set up a sting to recover her off an online ad. She’d been a runaway for a year and a half, since she was 13 years old and had left an abusive home, and had been sold by eight pimps.

“When we got her and brought her in she’s like, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.’ And she just had this look in her eyes of being lost,” Darr says. The girl was sent out of state to a residential treatment program to keep her safely out of reach of her trafficker, a gang member. The residential program provides victims trauma therapy in group and individual settings, provides medical care, coaches job skills, fills educational gaps for victims interested in returning to school or taking the GED, and teaches about healthy relationships, self esteem and empowerment.

“She just thrived in her program,” Darr says of that first recovered girl. “There’s always struggles, but she thrived in the program and really embraced it.”

That recovered girl went on to go to prom and graduated from high school — Darr has a photo of her, a beaming blonde impossibly far away from the sunken-cheeked, black-eyed girl they picked up years before whose trafficker-given brand was visible in her booking photo. Now, she’s in college on a full-ride scholarship.

Rarely, however, are victims available to testify against their traffickers when they finally come to trial, sometimes years after the initial arrest. Police do what they can to compile as much evidence as possible so they can still get a conviction even without the victim present to testify. In this case, the victim returned to testify against her trafficker, taking the stand for eight hours. The jury found her former pimp guilty of pandering and pimping of a child — though they could not reach a unanimous verdict on a count of child trafficking — and he was sentenced to 34 years in prison, according to an FBI press release.

She was quoted after his sentencing hearing as saying, “I’m no longer a victim. I’m victorious.”

But every morning, a survivor of trafficking has to wake up and decide how to manage the ongoing effects of the trauma, Darr says. Victims face social impacts like isolation from peers and community, physical effects from tattoos and branding to STDs and emotional damage from blaming themselves or facing a family that blames the victim, too, not to mention anxiety, paranoia, depression and other PTSD symptoms.

“It will be a lifetime of recovery because there’s so much trauma,” Darr says.

She’s just one of a team of service providers who immediately surround the victim — social workers, therapists and lawyers all step forward to provide them with the resources necessary to get out of the game. In a photo from the 18th birthday party for that first girl Darr helped recover in Colorado, she’s surrounded by the people who surged to her aid in the days following her recovery — investigators, the prosecuting attorney, victim’s advocates and staff from the treatment program, her social worker.

“She tells me all the time, she feels so loved because there are so many people that care and really went to bat for her,” Darr says. “And she really has thrived because of that.”

Darr echoes what the law enforcement says — more outreach has meant more victims recovered — and adds that it may even mean prevention, if approached correctly, even implementing educational components on trafficking into schools.

One of her victims, she says, was being dropped off at school every day by her pimp, and when she showed up with Air Jordans and her nails done, her friends said “Hey what about us?” instead of, “We’re worried about her.”

“I think it’s an issue of trying to get it out there so they recognize the issue,” Darr says. But curriculum covering self esteem and life skills could also prevent trafficking — as could teaching about healthy relationships and mutual respect, so little boys don’t grow up to be pimps and traffickers someday, she says. Identifying at-risk kids who are likely to run away and wrapping them in comprehensive services may also help reduce the numbers of trafficking victims.

There are two centers to help commercially sexually exploited children in Colorado. Amy’s House in Fort Collins opened earlier this year and Sarah’s Home in Colorado Springs will be opening soon, which is encouraging in terms of local treatment options.

The Boulder Police Department hasn’t reported any cases of human trafficking, according to the department spokesperson, Kim Kobel. But Attention Homes reports that on a particular sample night in January 2012, 162 Boulder County youth were reported homeless, a 165 percent increase over 2011. They also claim that 1,500 12- to 25-year-olds are homeless in Colorado right now. Within 48 hours of leaving home, 30 percent of runaways are recruited into trafficking.

Based on the cases that came in during 2012, Darr estimates that runaways’ first contact with a trafficker occurs within 24 hours of leaving home.

“They don’t understand or recognize that it could happen anywhere, it could happen in anyone’s backyard,” Darr says of the outlying communities around the Denver metro area, which don’t always recognize that trafficking exists in their area. “It does happen anywhere.”