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Friday, July 10, 2015

July Lunch & Learn: Fighting Colorado's Quietly-Booming Human Trafficking Trade

Picturesque, rugged Jefferson County is known for many things, like cutting-edge science education at the Colorado School of Mines, the iconic Coors Brewing Company and charming, tucked-away mountain towns like Evergreen and Genesee. But Denver County's western neighbor is also home to a sinister and surprising distinction: the county serves as a regional hub for underage sex trafficking. Although Kristen Harness, the speaker for July's International Service Lunch and Learn, first became interested in advocating for victims of sexual exploitation on a mission trip to the Red Light District of Pattaya, Thailand, she came home to Colorado to find that the presence of an underage sex trade was not a problem unique to Southeast Asia's developing economies.

"Like a lot of people, the first place I was exposed to trafficking was overseas, I didn't even realize that it was happening here, at the same time, in the US, specifically in Colorado." she said. "Over the years, I realized, I don't have to move to India or Thailand [to fight trafficking,] there's a plenty of work to be done here in Colorado. Denver is ranked no. 4 out of the top six cities in the United States in terms of the revenue that sex traffickers bring in annually."

Upon her return to the U.S., Harness worked with several local non-profits and missions with a goal of preventing trafficking and helping the victims of forced sex work. She eventually established her own organization, Extended Hands of Hope, to resettle young women who were trafficked. The organization offers resources like a state-licensed shelter, medical support and mental health services to teenage girls leaving the sex trade.

Harness will speak about trafficking during a Red Cross Lunch & Learn lecture from noon to 1 p.m., Wednesday, July 15, at the American Red Cross, 444 Sherman St.

According to Harness, victims of sex trafficking are too often placed in either the juvenile detention center or the foster care system, neither of which are well-equipped to address the needs of this vulnerable population.

"Our main focus is immediate housing, as an alternative to jail or detention centers, then addressing those mental health issues," she said. "70 to 90 percent of these children come from a history of sexual or violent abuse, so on top of the abuse they've experienced with trafficking, you can imagine the severity of their mental health issues."

Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, is the second-fastest growing form of criminal activity in the U.S., with the illegal drug trade taking the top spot. An estimated 105,000 American children are exploited through prostitution or pornography each year and most children who enter the sex trade do so between the ages of 11 and 13. Due to its location at the junction of I-70 and I-25, the Denver Metro region is particularly well-situated as a "source state," from which young people are taken and transported across state lines for prostitution and exploitation purposes. About 60 high-risk juveniles have been identified in Jefferson County alone, a majority of them children who were born and raised in the region.

According to Harness, the biggest obstacles in fighting human trafficking are a combination of ignorance of what constitutes trafficking, and the stigma culturally associated with sex workers.

"We like to point fingers at the quote-unquote prostitutes, instead of asking, why is that 15-year-old girl selling her body," Harness said. "A lot of people believe these women want to [engage in sex trade], and they don't know, or they don't care, or they want to hear, that somebody is actually behind the scenes, controlling her actions. She may look on the outside like she wants to, but it's because she knows what's going to happen to her if she doesn't."

Harness says she hopes the Lunch and Learn event will help educate the community on the severity of the local issue and how to fight it.

"Mostly, I want to make people aware that this is happening. I want to say, hey, did you know this is going on? Did you know that Jefferson County has some of the highest [numbers of] cases? My goal has always been raising that awareness," she said.

Harness will offer suggestions for those who want to join in the fight against trafficking, including what to watch for, how to report activity, and how to become involved with organizations like hers who support DMNST victims in the area. In addition to services provided by organizations like Extended Hands of Hope, trafficked individuals can also take advantage of services offered by the Red Cross to all displaced persons, including Restoring Family Links and, in cases of international trafficking, the protection of applicable International Humanitarian Laws.

Although Harness will be speaking about domestic trafficking issues, the topic is part of a series of Red Cross Lunch and Learn that address the broader themes of humanitarianism, international humanitarian law, and protecting the basic human rights of refugees and migrants.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement focuses on assisting people made vulnerable by migration, and human trafficking and exploitation in particular, whatever their legal status. The commitment includes not only material help, but also advocacy to combat discrimination against migrants and promote respect for human dignity. To find out more about these efforts, visit: https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/news-release/2009-and-earlier/conference-news-301107.htm

To attend the July 15 lecture, please RSVP by noon, Tuesday, July 14, by clicking here. Webinar options are also available for remote audiences. For more information, contact Tim Bothe.

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