High school students learn to fight sex trafficking at summit
SALT LAKE CITY — For years, child sex traffickers have targeted teens at malls and schools. Now they’re doing it on social media. It’s so disturbing to a group of Utah kids that they’ve volunteered to become the next-generation’s weapon against human traffickers.
This week, the teens are learning the warning signs and skills to alert the community to the underdog child sex trafficking industry.
Predators now use the internet to lure or force children into prostitution. In 2011, Salt Lake Police reported rescuing 150 kids in Utah from the sex trade since 2006. Nationally, the Polaris Project, a non-profit which tracks human trafficking, has reported that 100,000 to 300,000 American kids become slaves each year. The Department of State also reports that approximately 80 percent of trafficking victims are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors. Ages 13 to 17 are the most vulnerable.
High school students from California, Idaho, Texas, Minnesota, Kansas, Arizona, Iowa, and Utah converge at the University of Utah for the Backyard Broadcast Summit. This week-long summit hosted by Child Rescue aims to train students to be “station chiefs” within their communities. In essence, these teens will learn the realities of modern-day slavery and the tools to keep themselves and their peers safe.
“It’s mind blowing,” said Jacob Ferrell as he sighed and pounded his chest. “It got me you know.”
So far, this youth summit has been a life altering experience for the Davis High student.
“The biggest misconception with this is that it’s not happening,” Ferrell said. He’s making it his mission to tell his classmates what he’s learning about the child sex trade happening here in Utah and across the country. “I start on the subject and they’re like ‘Yeah, but maybe in New York, maybe in LA’, but I’m like ‘no,'” he said.
Ferrell heard from an undercover Los Angeles police agent who sees first-hand the transactions between perpetrators and victims — one recently here in the Salt Lake area.
“He was sitting in a restaurant and he saw a deal happen right outside the restaurant,” said Ferrell. “He couldn’t do anything because, one, this isn’t his area and he didn’t want to blow his cover.”
Backyard Broadcast reports that the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world is the trafficking of human beings. According to the U.S. State Department, human trafficking is second only to drugs in revenues. The UN estimates that $31.6 billion is made from buying and selling people around the globe.
“When they catch the traffickers, they’re really saving so many more people than if they’re putting the prostitutes in jail,” said Alta High student Ciana Bataineh. “It’s hard to convince kids that they can make a difference and that they can do something and they should do something. It’s kind of all up to us kids, at this point.”
Bataineh is one of 25 youth attending the summit. Today, it seems like she’s just playing games on the University of Utah rope challenge course, but experts say fighting child sex trafficking is quite a challenge. These teens feel if they can rise to the challenge of these difficult tasks, it’ll only prepare them for the bigger battle ahead.
“Instead of scaring people, motivate them,” Bataineh said.
Motivation is exactly why Amira Birger travels around the country to share her stories of abuse as a child that prompted her to run away from home and eventually be lured into child prostitution at age 15. She said it’s up to the community to help rescue kids.
“When kids are acting out, it’s really easy to blame the children for quote-unquote ‘being bad.’ But these kids are acting out of pain,” Birger said.
Each of the teens who participated in the summit this week will be responsible for starting a chapter at their school.
“As a society, it’s a hard topic to think about and it’s hard to discuss and really the change has to come from the people first before it’s going to make it all the way up to law enforcement,” said Backyard Broadcast Director Danielle Palmer.
The Child Rescue organization is shifting its awareness campaigns to target teenagers. It seems to be working. West Valley high students raised $20,000 last year, which helped pay for law enforcement training.