UA Research Institute Addresses Human Trafficking Across Region

Sex Trafficking Awareness Month

In order to inform community members and inspire them to engage in the conversation surrounding human trafficking, the SAATURN research team will host two events that are free and open to the public this month. A community forum will take place from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 20 at the Abrams Public Health Center (registration is required). The second event is a screening of the film "Tricked," followed by a panel discussion. That will take place at the Loft Cinema from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 30.


Through a project called SAATURN, researchers at the UA's Southwest Institute for Research on Women have partnered with the Tucson Police Department and CODAC Health, Recovery & Wellness to increase law-enforcement efforts and victim services for human-trafficking cases.

On any given day in Tucson, about 100 women sell sex in a variety of ways. Not all of these women are working in the sex industry by choice. Many are victims of trafficking — a federal crime whereby a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion.

A survivor of sex trafficking in southern Arizona, recently freed from her trafficker, started at the age of 16 with a man she believed to be her boyfriend. "I never knew my father," she says. "So picture this guy telling me he could give me the world."

Her trafficker was also the father of her son. He would withhold the child for weeks at a time — and often threaten to take their son with him to another city, where she could not see him again. At the same time, she became addicted to methamphetamine. The drugs and her child kept her tethered to her abuser.

"I was underage with no ID," she says. "I couldn't even get a place to stay. It's not the kind of thing you can do just for a little bit and then stop. You need things. … I had no place to go. You are dependent on someone."

When he began trafficking another young girl, she realized that her trafficker was not a boyfriend. While she wanted to get away, she was unable to do so. It was not until she was arrested that she was freed from the situation.

Freedom from her trafficker is a fresh start.

"I feel great," she says. "I feel happy. It feels great not having to check in with someone or walk the streets. I have a home, and I am able to provide for my kids. It was hard. I had to suck up my pride and start over with nothing. You go from making money every day to zero.

"I want a career. I want to continue to stay clean and provide for my children. I want to give my kids all the love they need. I want to make sure my daughters never go through the same thing."

Understanding the Crime

Sally Stevens is the executive director of the University of Arizona's Southwest Institute for Research on Women, or SIROW. Candace Black is a senior research specialist for SIROW. Together, Stevens and Black are collaborating with others on a three-year, $1.5 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Justice to work at the forefront of human trafficking in southern Arizona. The project is called the Southern Arizona Anti-Trafficking Unified Response Network, or SAATURN.

Raising awareness of the human-trafficking crimes within communities is critical to their work, but according to the researchers, the complexities go well beyond what the words "human trafficking" connote for most people.

What separates sex work from sex trafficking is the element of coercion, but the meaning of that can be complicated. Because it is a form of modern slavery, trafficking seems fairly clear-cut for many people: A victim becomes enslaved. If and when that victim is freed, it is a joyous occasion. But usually, that is not the case.

Sex trafficking begins with the trafficker, a moneymaker who oversees the operation. Traffickers often use "bottoms" (also considered traffickers) as managers to handle day-to-day business, such as collecting payments and handing them over.

"Bottoms are often previous victims of trafficking themselves," Black says. "They are sometimes first exploited as juveniles and then later turned into bottoms."

"They may perceive themselves as rising up in the organization," Stevens says. "They may report that they have a lot of control and power."

A "john" is the buyer of sexual acts. Lastly, there are the victims or survivors — those who are coerced into performing these sexual acts.

Herein lies the complexity.

"A lot of victims of sex trafficking don't view themselves as victims," Black says. The Tucson Police Department "has identified a lot of victims that they pull out of exploitation situations who then immediately go back to their trafficker."

"It can take many times of being caught in an investigation before a victim decides the lifestyle isn’t good for them," Stevens says. "Knowing that takes a huge level of awareness."

In addition, victims may not want to seek or accept help. There can be a number of reasons for this, Stevens says. They may have a drug addiction, an emotional attachment to the abuser or the feeling that they have nowhere else to turn for basic needs. In sex- or labor-trafficking cases in which victims are immigrants or lack U.S. citizenship, they may not want to risk deportation.

SAATURN is dedicated to connecting survivors with services that address their basic needs and allow them independence. For example, law enforcement will be heavily involved in investigations and arrests through March to target buyers of commercial sex. Law-enforcement officers not only work on identifying, arresting and prosecuting human-trafficking crimes, they also assist victims by connecting them with services provided by agencies such as CODAC Health, Recovery & Wellness, which offers transportation, housing, shelter, medical and mental health treatment, crisis intervention, emotional moral support, case management and more. 

In a study led by Arizona State University researcher Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, the three most common reasons for engaging in sex trafficking reported by homeless youth were money (53 percent), a place to stay (48.5 percent), and drugs (34.8 percent).

Society's ability to understand these complexities, Black and Stevens say, is the first hurdle in reducing instances of trafficking.

Work in the Community

It is important for law-enforcement agencies and victim-services providers across Pima, Cochise and Santa Cruz counties to have similar procedures; to be consistent in terminology, including federal definitions of human trafficking; and to engage in training and outreach strategies.

"If we're reaching out to hotel providers here in Pima County, we need to make sure we're doing that in Santa Cruz and Cochise counties, and that we're all saying the same thing," Stevens says.

This way, employees at a hotel in Tucson and those at a hotel in Sierra Vista will be able to recognize the signs that a guest may be involved in trafficking.

Every six months, SIROW takes a poll of about 195 SAATURN stakeholders to measure SAATURN's progress in law enforcement, victim services, advocacy, training, financial sustainability, and leadership and regulatory issues.

"Our evaluation results show that we've made quite a lot of progress so far," Stevens says.

A large majority of SAATURN stakeholders report substantial progress in the development of the coalition, including identifying key resources for survivors, as well as increased public outreach efforts.

One responder to the survey wrote that SAATURN has progressed in "identifying available beds (shelter or permanent) to take victims 24/7," while another wrote that it has "increased public outreach to raise awareness to the crime of human trafficking."

With almost two more years of funding for the project, Stevens and Black expect to see even more progress in southern Arizona.

"We need community engagement and participation for continued progress," Black says. "This work is progressing on the backs of a lot of volunteers.”


Jan. 17, 2017
Original story here


Published Date: 

01/24/2017 - 8:20am