By Mike McKibbin / NewsBreak Denver / Aug. 21, 2023
[DOUGLAS COUNTY, COLO.] — Human trafficking was the subject of Thursday night’s live town hall meeting held by the Douglas County Commissioners, with a wide-ranging discussion led by a panel of counselors and law enforcement officials.
The commissioners this year approved an ordinance aimed at cracking down on trafficking at massage parlors, some of which that have been found to house victims and offer services to customers.
Commissioner Abe Laydon recounted a story of a young girl who learned of a man who paid $100 for topless photos. The man blackmailed her and told her if she didn’t do what she was told, he would send the images to her family and friends.
“It was very eye-opening for me,” he said.
Next door, in schools
Kelly Dore is a trafficking survivor and executive director of the Sierra Cares Foundation, which helps survivors worldwide. She stated trafficking often starts in homes with sexual abuse or grooming.
“That makes it really hard to spot because we don’t want to look at our neighbors or our family members,” Dore said.
Fewer than 1% of trafficking victims are children taken from their homes, she added.
“It’s next door in your community, in our schools even though public schools will adamantly say ‘we have no human trafficking’,” Dore continued. “Studies have found one or more cases of human trafficking in every single high school in America and in most middle schools.”
Not all victims are young girls, she noted.
“Boys are more under-reported than girls and girls are very underreported,” Dore stated.
Dore said she grew up in a “fairly affluent” community, was abused and trafficked, “and nobody took notice.” Her trafficker was her biological father, she added.
“I told seven adults from the time I was 7 to 13 years old and not one understood how to help me or understand what I was saying or where to go,” Dore said.
‘Crime that hides in plain sight’
Janelle Goodrich is the founder, executive director and active case manager for From Silenced to Saved, a trafficking survivor counseling service for minors.
She said most trafficking begins online, and victims are “groomed and lured” into involuntary servitude or to provide sexual services.
“It’s no longer the white van following your kids home from school,” Goodrich added. “It’s a crime that hides in plain sight so it can go very unnoticed.”
Trafficking creates a “trauma bond” between victims and perpetrators, similar to the Stockholm syndrome, she added. “It’s a form of brainwashing,” Goodrich stated.
Those involved in trafficking are also not as portrayed on social media, she added.
“They’re not drag queens or priests or some Black guy walking down the street with baggy pants,” Goodrich said. “Statistically, they are people you sit down and have dinner with.”
Johanna Spille is the founder and executive director of Covered Colorado and works with adult survivors. She said traffickers look for vulnerability in their victims.
“Like a single mom trying to make ends meet and someone says they have a room in their house that they can stay in,” Spille said. “They’ll even offer to watch your kid while you go to work. Victims end up in prisons of their own. They’re mental and emotional prisons so they walk around looking like you and I.”
Advice for parents and enforcement
Sheriff Darren Weekly said parents should know who their children hang out with and how they use their cell phones and computers.
“Be aware of hidden chat apps that kids use to deceive their parents from knowing where they are and who they’re communicating with,” he added. “And using tracking apps is very important.”
Weekly said deputies are trained to look for things “that don’t look right during a traffic stop.” If they suspect trafficking is involved, they send their reports to special victims unit detectives. Some cases can go to other authorities such as the FBI, Weekly added.
If someone suspects human trafficking might be occurring, Weekly said to call either 911 or a Colorado hotline, 866-455-5075, which accepts anonymous reports.
Jacob Kremin heads the special victims unit in the 18th Judicial District District Attorney’s Office that includes Douglas County. The team handles trafficking cases, which he said involve coercion of adults. That can consist of mental or physical actions or things like withholding identification documents.
In June and July, a nationwide trafficking operation that included around 40 Colorado law enforcement agencies found 27 victims in two days, nine of whom were children. Colorado is one of the leading states for finding trafficking victims, Kremin said.
“These cases can take time so if you report something and don’t get a response, it’s not that we aren’t doing anything,” he added. “It’s because we understand the trauma that goes into the court process and we want to make sure we have an effective investigation, arrest and prosecution.”