LEAD addresses Human Trafficking in Grand County

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photo by Christy Parrott | LEAD adults pose with a group of girls after the presentation. Adult leadership team consists of (Back L -R) are: Back Row left to right- Chelsea Gould, Executive Director of Advocates for a Violence-Free Community; Reverend Paula Steinbacher, Pastor of Church of the Eternal Hills in Tabernash and LEAD Steering Committee Member. (Front L - R) Gina Saverese, Sustainability Global Program Manager and LEAD Advocate; Leslie Wilson, LEAD Steering Committee Member; Mary Landerholm, MSW, Lab to Combat Human Trafficking.
photo by Christy Parrott | LEAD adults pose with a group of girls after the presentation. Adult leadership team consists of (Back L -R) are: Back Row left to right- Chelsea Gould, Executive Director of Advocates for a Violence-Free Community; Reverend Paula Steinbacher, Pastor of Church of the Eternal Hills in Tabernash and LEAD Steering Committee Member. (Front L - R) Gina Saverese, Sustainability Global Program Manager and LEAD Advocate; Leslie Wilson, LEAD Steering Committee Member; Mary Landerholm, MSW, Lab to Combat Human Trafficking.

by Christy Parrott
In a warm, safe room at Eternal Hills Church, Grand County residents sipped coffee and learned what they could do to prevent human trafficking. “I can’t believe it’s happening here,”Middle Park high school senior Holly Fox said. Fox is an active member of LEAD (Learn, Educate, Achieve, Dare: A girl’s leadership project organization), headed by Leslie Steering, who coordinated the Human Trafficking Awareness event. Steering brought together a panel of industry and local experts to address the important, difficult questions: Does human trafficking happen in Grand County? What does it look like? How can we help?

In order to be considered human trafficking, whether for labor, sex, or both, specific criteria of force, fraud and/or coercion must be met. The definition provides an important distinction, because, too often, what’s actually illegal gets diminished as simply a bad relationship, Mary Landerholm explains. Landerholm, a Metro State professor and council member of combathumantrafficking.org, gave examples of human trafficking: “It looks like men and women who are forced to work and are not paid. Their documents withheld.”

Approximately 33% of American labor is performed by legitimate, documented workers, and often trouble occurs when those employees have their legal documents withheld by their employers. Another common occurrence is debt bondage, where a person enters into an employment contract, likely written in a language they don’t understand. Then, they’re forced to work long, hard hours with the hopes for a better life, only to get criminally low wages due, in part, to charges incurred (such as transportation to and from a job site). Gina Saverese, Sustainability Global Program Manager and Lead advocate asks, “Who would pay five months of their salary just to get a job? That’s what’s happening all over.” Imagine, the farmhand who arrived with a work visa, incurred debt bondage through exploitation, trapped in an illegal work environment because his papers have expired. Now he’s considered an illegal, which may be held over his head, producing more coercion and fraud. Or, a woman enslaved in a nearby tourist town, forced into domestic labor by day (cleaning vacation rentals) only to have herself further trafficked in the evening. Statics show that labor trafficking, often considered exclusive to men, is actually 42% male and 58% female. “Any time human labor is involved, there’s a potential for human trafficking,” Landerholm says.

Colorado is uniquely susceptible to human trafficking because of its geographical location. With Interstates 70 and 25, it’s easy to get anywhere, fast. Combine that with a massive international airport, and the reality is that unless you’re around a major city, you’re likely to be in the middle of no where, and it’s easy to comprehend how someone who gets dropped off at an unfamiliar farm, for example, wouldn’t know where they were or how to escape. “It’d be a rough road getting out of Grand County if you’re alone, in the middle of no where on Highway 40,” Landerholm understands.

Interpersonal isolation is also a common occurrence. Field hands picking marijuana, for instance, may have not only become indebted and held against their will, but also not be permitted access to the internet or a phone. Worse, many victims of human trafficking may not realize that what’s happening to them is highly illegal.

Interpersonal isolation goes hand in hand with domestic abuse. For instance, a young girl (the most common age of female children trafficked is 17) may be forced into domestic labor during the day only to have to provide further labor in the evening, all under the ruse of “protection” from law enforcement officials who would actually help her escape the terrible, illegal situation. Eternal Hills’ Pastor, Reverend Paula Steinbacher explains, “Kids are often isolated from their families and peers, and eventually, they’ll do whatever their captors ask, just to get food.”

Recently, law enforcement agencies have been working with other agencies, such as Grand County’s Advocates For a Violence-Free Community, to help human trafficking victims escape their situation (even if their visas have expired and they’re consider illegal by status). In fact, Advocate’s executive director, Chelsea Gould shares that in 2017, 112 people between the ages of 13-18 were rescued. “If you’re asking yourself, Does that really happen in Grand County,” Gould insists, “The answer is yes.” Currently, there are 21 task forces to fight human trafficking in Colorado, but most are in population-saturated areas, so it’s up to rural residents to remain actively vigilant. “There are a number of ways the community can work together to fight human trafficking. One is to create a Task Force around what Governments have defined as the 4Ps: Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Partnership,” Steering says. Steering and her panel are working hard to bring awareness to Grand County, so that every citizen can take action. “Our community needs to first of all recognize that human trafficking can and does happen in Grand County. Once we are all accepting the problem, we can work together to keep our eyes open and report something when we notice something suspicious,” Reverend Steinbacher urges. And it can only take a small gesture. In 2011, an American Airlines flight attendant left a note to a young passenger on the plane’s bathroom mirror, asking if she needed help. When the young girl on the flight confirmed she was in danger, pilots contacted authorities and rescued her. Colorado offers a 24/7 Human Trafficking Hotline number 866-455-5075. Landerholm assures, “You can call the hotline anonymously. All of our services and connections on our hotline are through vetted relationships, all folks are all trained on the issue, and only trusted law enforcement who do this work are connected with when law enforcement is being asked to be notified.”

Over 600 calls to the Human Trafficking Hotline were placed in 2018. Landerholm suggests that it’s not because the problem is getting bigger but that people are becoming more aware and are speaking out. Saverese says, “Grand County gets involved and cares about the people who live here.” Saverese recommends considering where money is spent and what types of practices companies large and small employ. Saverese asks residents to “Think about buying from businesses who treat their employees well.” (Yet another reason to buy local.)

Education is another important component. Human trafficking of a child wasn’t considered child abuse until 2016, so child welfare didn’t have to respond, tying the hands of prosecutors seeking justice. If children don’t know what is happening is wrong, they won’t have the tools to recognize and fight such heinous crimes. “Now that some of our girls are aware of the problem, I’d love to see them begin to work towards an action group at the high school to spread awareness,” Steering says. By engaging our youth through programs, such as LEAD, the future generation’s leaders will be more aware of serious issues threatening the safety and integrity of our community. But more work needs to be done. Parents and residents can contact school districts to insist on educating our youth via curriculum, enter the Human Trafficking hotline into cell phones, and remain vigilant. “It sucks that we all have to be so careful,” a LEAD youth member shakes her head, “But it’s good to know there are people up here to help us stay safe.” An elderly participant sitting in the crowd responded, “Honey, we all feel the same way.” For more information, go to combathumantrafficking.org, gcadvocates.org, and follow LEAD on Facebook or Instagram.