Story by Cassie Schoon, Volunteer, Denver, Colorado
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 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 US, 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.
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 trauma.”
Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, is the second-fastest growing form of criminal activity in the US, 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.
“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 offers suggestions for those who want to join in the fight against trafficking, including knowing what to watch for, how to report activity, and how to become involved with organizations like hers who support Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking 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.
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, click here.
For more stories from the American Red Cross Colorado Region, please click here.