Sex traffickers are targeting Arizona’s homeless teens and runaways

Tucson – More than 4,000 cases of sex trafficking in the U.S. were reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in 2015 – with nearly 120 of those cases coming out of Arizona.

Many of the victims were runaways, teens and young adults picked up off the streets and trafficked into prostitution. Others were solicited online.

A study of more than 200 homeless young adults, aged 18 to 25, found as many as one in three had experienced sexual exploitation or commercial sex trafficking, according to the Arizona State University Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention and Research and the McCain Institute.

“Sexual abuse destroys a soul and it makes you feel filthy and worthless,” said Lisa Hansen, who runs the education department of Sold No More, an organization that aims to end sex trafficking in Tucson.

Hansen, now 44, was her school’s class president, a straight-A student, and a soccer player – until she ran away from her Tucson home and became the victim of sex trafficking. She met an older man and lived with him and several other men. She lost her virginity to her abuser. She had a baby at 18.

“To be brutally honest, I didn’t feel like I was in a bad situation. I felt like, ‘I’m free, I don’t have any rules. I can do what I want, I can drink. I can do anything,’ ” she said. “I didn’t know I was being trafficked at the time.”

She also was used to smuggle drugs across the border.

“It was like, we are going to party across the border and then come back. I was very naive,” Hansen said.

According to Shut Out Trafficking, a partnership between UNICEF and the National Consortium for Academics and Sports, one in three young people are solicited for sex within 48 hours of running away or becoming homeless in the U.S.

A 2014 report by Polaris, a Washington D.C.-based organization aimed at stopping human trafficking, categorizes the state of Arizona as Tier 2, meaning it has passed numerous laws that combat trafficking and should take more steps to improve and implement them.

However, the same report examined victims’ assistance laws and placed Arizona in Tier 4, highlighting the state’s minimal efforts to pass laws supporting victims of human trafficking.

“The kids we are dealing with are specifically domestic. They aren’t from over the border. They come right from your own neighborhood,” said Cindy McCain, who serves as co-chair of the Arizona Governor’s Council on human trafficking and sits on the McCain Institute’s Human Trafficking Advisory Council.

Last year, the Tucson Police Department became one of ten departments in the country to receive a 2015 Bureau of Justice Assistance Human Trafficking Task Force grant of $740,000.

Parker, head of the Tucson street crimes investigations unit, said part of the grant requirement is to provide ongoing training for departments in southern Arizona.

“What this task force has done for us is now we are trying to change the police officers’ perspectives. As a police officer you typically think of someone arrested for prostitution as a suspect,” he said. “And I don’t know that in the amount of time that we have for this grant we are going to completely change all of their minds”

“But what we’d like to do is make them aware of the other services that are available. So if [sex workers] decide they want to get out of that lifestyle, we want the other agencies in southern Arizona to know what are those resources and how they can get someone who might be continually going through the system to those resources,” Parker added.

The grant will not only provide funding to educate officers on providing resources, but also increase manpower, training and equipment.

“From a law enforcement perspective, typically we see [sex workers] as a prostitute first. Because traditionally that individual is someone who has broken the law, we take them to jail and that’s the end of the story,” Parker said.

From an economics standpoint, Parker says the best way to get rid of demand is to decrease supply.

“Get them off the streets and eliminate Johns,” he said.

Since the task force began in October 2015, there has been a spike in prostitution arrests.

“Our goal is to make a dent and try and diminish both sex and labor trafficking. So when you say that you’ve been successful, you can quantify that in the number of arrests,” Parker said.

According to the federal task force ICAC, Internet Crimes Against Children, 1 in 5 children will be sexually solicited online.

An estimated 85 percent of the sex market in Tucson is online, according to a report by ASU’s School of Social Work, Office of Sex Trafficking and Demand.

Jerry Peyton, Lisa Hansen’s dad, created Sold No More five years ago. Peyton and his daughter educate middle and high school students through their AWARE program to decrease their vulnerability to exploitation.

Illuminated by the red glow of the projector, Hansen now engages an 8th grade classroom at Dietz Elementary School with a presentation on the dangers of online solicitation.

“This is very touchy for schools. They say, ‘you’re going to talk about what? I’ve got sixth graders and seventh graders in there and you’re going to talk about sexual addiction and predators and trafficking…that’s a little heavy,'” Peyton said. And I say, ‘Do you know in Arizona the average age a girl is first brought into sex trafficking? Thirteen.’ ”

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that every year, 100,000 to 300,000 children in America between the ages of twelve and fourteen are at risk.

Peyton says communities have to help victims find a voice.
“In our case, I was a pastor, my daughter was the president of her class, she was a church girl, she didn’t smoke, drink, any of that. And she wound up being trafficked,” Peyton said.

There are 78,412 potential buyers per day in Phoenix, according to the McCain Institute.

“Before a community, before a state or a country can really respond to a problem they have to be convinced that it is there. And it is real. So right now we are kind of a flashlight in the dark saying this is more obvious than you know,” Peyton said.

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