Moving in the Right Direction

Colorado is a crossroad for human trafficking, but an MSU Denver professor is helping the state and the nation to combat the crime.

By Leslie Petrovski

Publish Date: January 30, 2014


Perspective on human trafficking: “If you sell drugs or guns you sell
it one time and it’s gone. But you can 
sell a person over and over,” 
says Denver Police Sgt. Daniel Steele

Sprawling on all sides of the confluence of I-70 and I-25, Denver has the ungainly look of a city shedding its industrial past. On I-70 the hulking gray Purina plant blocks views of the city’s gleaming skyline. Decrepit hotels and luxury condos rim I-25. Spindly cranes bracket construction projects, rising from the demolition of mid-century office buildings that no longer serve.

Denver doesn’t shine from its highways. But it’s the view daily commuters have as they rhumba across the city slowly in traffic — the same view those trafficked into the city see as they arrive for empty promises of jobs or love.

Colorado’s highways are among the first characteristics human trafficking experts mention when describing how the crime plays out here. The state capital is the nation’s bull’s-eye: one long day’s drive to Juarez or Saskatchewan; 10 tedious hours on the Great Plains to Kansas City, Mo.; 13 brutal hours across the desert to Phoenix. Denver is a convenient hub for the comings and goings of kids indentured to magazine sales crews or migrant farm workers in bondage to debt.

“The way human trafficking manifests in Colorado has a lot to do with its location in the U.S.,” explains AnnJanette Alejano-Steele, MSU Denver professor of women’s studies and co-founder of the nonprofit Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT). “We connect folks, east to west and north to south, by virtue of our highways.”

Alejano-Steele is co-author of “The Colorado Project to Comprehensively Combat Human Trafficking,” a groundbreaking three-year study conducted by LCHT that examined how the state is responding to trafficking. Although Colorado has its share of issues, starting with its laws, it’s the first state to hold a mirror up to its efforts, gathering on-the-ground data necessary to start corralling the problem on the continuum from prevention to prosecution to survivorship.

The surprise is the backyard nature of it all. The Colorado Project revealed that trafficking is thriving statewide — in Denver, Lakewood, Aurora, Colorado

Springs and rural Colorado — and is as likely to involve a white middle-schooler at odds with her parents as it is an undocumented worker fearing deportation.

As a crime, human trafficking sits on the far end of the labor and sexual exploitation spectrum where victims may be subjected to all manner of psychological abuse, beatings and deprivation. In his seminal speech on the subject during the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative, President Barack Obama called the crime “modern slavery,” acknowledging the dark perversion of the American Dream at the core of the problem in the United States. Whether it’s a homeless 15-year-old girl looking to feed herself or a man lured into forced kitchen labor, desperation and poverty breed the vulnerability traffickers prey on.

“There’s so much manipulation that goes on there,” explains Denver Police Sgt. Daniel Steele (no relation to Alejano-Steele), who works on the FBI’s Innocence Lost Task Force. “You’re being manipulated because you want something more out of life.”

Upstairs in Denver’s Posner Center for International Development [link], Amanda Finger, a social entrepreneur who founded LCHT with Alejano-Steele, is describing human trafficking in Colorado.

“The characteristics of a state determine how trafficking manifests,” she says. “You have to ask, what are the vulnerabilities?”

In the Centennial State, those vulnerabilities include the prevalence of industries such as agriculture and tourism requiring low-cost labor as well as a healthy immigrant population, about a third of which is undocumented and especially susceptible to exploitation because of language barriers and fears of deportation.

Denver, the largest city in a 600-mile radius, is like any metropolis — a mecca for rich and poor, the nefarious and altruistic, providing a market for trafficked goods and services along with a rich supply of victims.

Pinning down the scope of human trafficking anywhere is difficult at best. The crime is older than Exodus, but the international, national and local legal systems are only now catching up. Although aspects of human trafficking have been prosecuted under laws covering kidnapping, labor and sexual assault, it wasn’t until 2000 that human trafficking was defined and labeled as a crime in and of itself.

Following the lead of the United Nations, which adopted in 2000 the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking In Persons, Especially Women and Children, the United States passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a comprehensive law designed to protect victims and prosecute perpetrators. Colorado passed its first anti-trafficking bill in 2006.

The introduction of human trafficking laws has meant a sea change in how society views and punishes crimes such as prostitution and forced labor, demanding more nuanced and sophisticated responses from law enforcement, the judicial system and victims’ advocates. Questions like who is the criminal and who is the victim have been brought into sharper relief with laws spelling out that sex-trafficked children, for example, aren’t lawbreakers but rather the tragic victims of a horrific crime.

“It is very difficult to prosecute human trafficking cases,” explained Janet Stansberry Drake, a Colorado senior assistant attorney general in the Special Prosecutions Unit, via email. (Colorado, in fact, has successfully prosecuted only two trafficking cases under its statutes.) “We, as a community, are still learning what human trafficking means. Additionally, victims of human trafficking are often reluctant to participate in the criminal justice system. Reluctance exists in part because of the severe trauma (often emotional and physical) victims experience.”

How prevalent is trafficking in Colorado? There’s really no way to know. One metric is the number of victimized children recovered by law enforcement in the Denver metro area. In 2012, 49 victims were brought in; in 2013, 61 were rescued. Another measure is the number of Colorado-based calls received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline: 151 in 2012, only 31 of which referenced human trafficking specifically.

“We have people across the country labeling it as child abuse,” explains Alejano-Steele. “If you have a parent selling a child for sex on Colfax to put dinner on the table, it’s child abuse but it’s also human trafficking. Or the abusive partner forcing his girlfriend into prostitution; it’s domestic violence and it’s human trafficking. Until we can distinguish it from other crimes, it will be tucked away under other crimes and violations.”

On the front lines, though, Sgt. Steele sees increased activity. Law enforcement officials, he says, are better equipped to identify the crime and bring in perpetrators. On the other hand, he calls sex trafficking, the “crime du jour,” saying that it appeals to the criminally inclined because it’s lucrative and difficult to prove.

“If you sell drugs or guns,” he says, “you sell it one time and it’s gone. But you can sell a person over and over.”

When Alejano-Steele began volunteering for the Colorado chapter of the anti-trafficking organization Polaris Project (which would eventually become LCHT), she asked Amanda Finger how she could use her skills as a professor to help. Finger didn’t hesitate: “Train law enforcement.”

By then, the United States had passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and Finger was working in Colorado to raise awareness about the issue. In the classroom, Alejano-Steele had begun incorporating information about human trafficking into various courses at MSU Denver, but she did so broadly. “I was teaching it as that crime in the Philippines and Thailand and the former Soviet Union,” she says. “It was my understanding of the issue at the time.”

During her post-doctoral work at the University of California, San Francisco, studying the psychosocial factors that affect birth outcomes for low-income women, she began to think about the complex stew of gender, mental health, physical well-being and social factors that combine to make healthy or not-so-healthy communities. Committed as she was to research, she realized she wanted to work for an institution that valued teaching and was connected to the community.

At MSU Denver, Alejano-Steele accepted a joint appointment in psychology and women’s studies. She began teaching Feminist Theories and Practices, Women of Color, Cultural Diversity and Women’s Health Issues, earning a reputation as a hard grader and for enlivening her classes with guest speakers and community service requirements.

After years of asking students to work in the community, Alejano-Steele felt she was at a point in her life where she could make her own impact. She did what Finger had asked and began using her skills as an educator to train first responders on the differences between prostitution, human trafficking, smuggling and immigration violations. That work gave birth to LCHT, the organization Alejano-Steele co-founded with Finger, which trains health care providers, government officials and others to recognize human trafficking for what it is. The organization to date has trained more than 17,000 people.

In 2007, Alejano-Steele developed one of the country’s first undergraduate courses on the subject at MSU Denver, a class now in its 18th consecutive semester. Through this course, Alejano-Steele has educated hundreds of student nurses, police officers, social workers, psychologists and others on the local and international scope of the crime. The class, too, has seen its share of self-admitted student perpetrators come through as well as victims, some who only realized they had been trafficked after taking the class.

Since 2007, the University has provided an academic home for dozens of survivors, a mostly anonymous group of students who are using the tonic of education to move forward from the trauma of their past lives. Unofficially, Alejano-Steele began helping these students matriculate at MSU Denver, the Community College of Denver, the University of Colorado Denver, and the Emily Griffith Technical College. Careful to protect students’ privacy, Alejano-Steele developed a network of trusted campus contacts who helped student survivors with college and academic support.

Alejano-Steele formalized the work she was doing with student survivors by creating an MSU Denver program housed at the Institute for Women’s Studies and Services called the Human Trafficking Academic Response Team (HTART), which pairs survivors with student advocates trained to work with them on everything from enrollment to handling midterm stress.

In the last six years, the academic response team has helped 51 survivors learn about their educational options. Some have graduated; others have put their educations on hold. Seventy-five percent were born in the Denver metro area.

Student survivors of human trafficking are and are not like traditional students. Many are older, which makes a school like MSU Denver with its nontraditional student population the ideal place to blend in. They may be trauma survivors, whether they’ve been raped multiple times a day or coerced into some type of forced labor, which puts them at greater risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

“For any vulnerable population,” observes Rebekah Lamar, an HTART academic advocate and MSU Denver undergraduate student in human services, “the system is very difficult. It can get to the point where you don’t want to attend school anymore. It’s nice to have someone there.”

With such different life experiences, a survivor may not feel comfortable participating in traditional student activities. That sense of apartness can put any student at risk of dropping out. “Take orientation,” explains Mary Durant, another advocate who is finishing her master’s degree in social work at MSU Denver. “You’re coming out of a traumatic experience. You might not feel comfortable playing games with 150 freshmen. Sometimes we can meet the needs of the individual and get them into a smaller group orientation that might be a little more comfortable.”

One survivor, “Susan,” said her experience caused her to distance herself from teachers and fellow students at MSU Denver. Being trafficked, she wrote, is “like something out of a horror movie.” (Susan, which is not her real name, answered questions via email to Alejano-Steele, who forwarded them on.) She escaped from her pimp in 2004 after he had rounded up new girls to work for him. “He just let me walk out the hotel door,” she wrote. “I will never forget that feeling of being uncertain if I wanted to go or run back to him. He was all I had at the time.”

At school she tried to fit in by keeping to herself. “I felt like I was different and I worked so hard to act like other people,” she explained. “I didn’t want anyone to know anything about me. I was so quiet the first few years, and you can see it in my grades. I wouldn’t let anyone help me with schoolwork; I didn’t want to get too close to anyone. I love academics, but without support it is so difficult to do on your own.”

Susan has since earned her undergraduate degree at MSU Denver and is now pursuing a master’s and applying to Ph.D. programs. “My life is amazing now, with the support from the Institute for Women’s Studies and Services, Dr. Alejano-Steele, HTART, and my boss from the University department where I worked as an undergraduate. These people allowed me to look forward in my life and see that my experience does not define me or who I am, and that I am amazing in what area I choose to be in.

“MSU Denver saved my life by giving me new opportunities, by supporting me through every phase of long-term survivorship. I am deeply indebted to them.”

Colorado is at a crossroad with regard to human trafficking. This past October, LCHT published The Colorado Project national and statewide reports. Funded by a $1 million grant from the Embrey Family Foundation, the project began in 2010 with an overarching question: What would it take to end human trafficking in Colorado? Now three years later, the state — and the country — have some answers in the voluminous 400 pages produced by the team led by Alejano-Steele.

On a national level, the research illuminated promising practices in the “4Ps” — Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Partnerships. It’s a framework identified by the United Nations and U.S. State Department to address modern slavery that aims to circle the issue from start (prevention) to finish (protecting victims). The report created a research model other communities can follow and outlined an ambitious statewide action plan — 14 sweeping recommendations organized under the 4Ps — that more than anything urge continued education and collaboration among police, prosecutors, social services and other agencies.

On the front burner (recommendation No. 4 under prosecution): new legislation that will bring Colorado’s law more in line with federal legislation, further refining the language and giving prosecutors a more precise and potent tool with which to indict traffickers.

Colorado’s initiatives have not gone unnoticed. In March 2013, when LCHT hosted its conference on The Colorado Project, a member of the U.S. State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons attended. There also are eight communities nationwide looking to replicate The Colorado Project research in their area.

“What we are doing,” Alejano-Steele says, “will absolutely inform the way the movement talks about this issue.”