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Flagstaff Initiative Against Trafficking

Kate Wyatt, human trafficking program coordinator at Northland Family Help Center, stands in her office with an information board.

January is National Human Trafficking Prevention and Awareness Month. Wear blue tomorrow, Jan. 11, to show your support for prevention efforts.

Slavery is not merely a foreign or historical concept. Human trafficking, considered modern-day slavery, is a real and ongoing threat across the United States, especially in Flagstaff and the surrounding region.

In the last year, the Flagstaff Initiative Against Trafficking (FIAT) has identified 63 adults and 32 youth in the Flagstaff community who have experienced trafficking. At the same time, through various sting operations hosted by law enforcement, more than 600 individuals in the area attempted to purchase sex with a minor.

FIAT, housed by Northland Family Help Center, was created in August 2017 as a means to deter people from purchasing sex and provide resources for trafficking victims and survivors.

Kate Wyatt, FIAT’s human trafficking program coordinator, says, unlike metropolitan areas, much of the trafficking occurring in Flagstaff is hidden from public sight. FIAT and other local organizations are encouraging locals to catch the public’s attention by wearing blue tomorrow.

“It’s not out in the open. So much of it is online,” Wyatt said. “A lot of what happens is in people’s homes, in hotels, in parks. It looks different here, so we’re still trying to figure out what‘s happening and how we can prevent it.”

The International Labor Organization reported that human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide, two-thirds of which is generated by sex trafficking.

According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, less than two percent of human trafficking victims are ever identified. In 2018 alone, more than 5,000 cases were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, suggesting the massive influence of this illegal industry.

To raise awareness statewide, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a proclamation last week designating January 2019 Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Arizona Capitol Dome will be lit blue throughout the month to demonstrate commitment to becoming a zero-tolerance state, Ducey explained in a Twitter post.

The Coconino County Board of Supervisors and Flagstaff City Council have followed suit, each making their own proclamations in order to make northern Arizona locals aware of this crisis. The county signed its proclamation Tuesday, and the city is scheduled to do so during its meeting next week.

A global and local crisis

Much of the human trafficking in the world today occurs online. No social media platform or online dating service is free from the reach of human trafficking, Wyatt said, including social media giants like Instagram and Facebook. Any website or app where people are communicating with each other can be misused for human trafficking.

Online exchanges can distance purchasers from victims, causing some to believe a felony is just an ordinary business transaction.

“A common misconception that buyers have is that it’s a victimless crime and that these men and women want to be doing this,” Wyatt said. “Most of the time, this isn’t a choice someone had. They were forced into it or tricked into it.”

She said oftentimes victims are forced into these situations by their own family members or to fulfill basic needs like food and shelter. FIAT strives to provide for those needs so individuals are not exploited through trafficking.

Physical location also plays a role in trafficking, though, putting Flagstaff at the heart of the issue because of its connection to major roadways.

“We are at some major transportation corridors in this area, and human trafficking is a real and visible and impactful activity that does occur in Coconino County,” said Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott prior to signing the proclamation Tuesday.

Wyatt said that, because of this location, it is easy for people to travel through Flagstaff to major cities like Phoenix, Dallas, Las Vegas and Los Angeles – and take trafficking victims with them.

“Traffickers will send or take their victims to the different cities and traffic them,” she said. “A lot of times, [the victims] have no idea where they are or where they’ve been.”

That’s where FIAT steps in. With the help of its 29 active members – community-wide professional service providers and volunteers of all types – the organization has established two subcommittees to better combat trafficking in northern Arizona. Since FIAT was created, the Community Education & Awareness Committee has hosted numerous events to better educate the community about the reality of human trafficking, while the Guideline/Protocol committee has outlined a process for trafficking incidents and observations.

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The Coconino Coalition for Children & Youth is a member of the education committee. Virginia Watahomigie, CCC&Y director, said the committee’s next step is getting more local individuals and neighborhood representatives involved through documentary screenings, trainings and community meetings.

“Trafficking is alive in Arizona and it’s specifically happening within our small communities of Northern Arizona,” she said. “It’s extremely important that we’re raising awareness, that people are identifying individuals.”

Community members are encouraged to watch for the red flags of trafficking; however, for their safety and the safety of victims, they are asked not to approach a person they suspect may be a trafficking victim. Report as many details regarding the people, location and vehicles involved. FIAT, along with the Flagstaff Police Department, Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security, work together to ensure the safety of these individuals.

Moving forward

Although the reality of human trafficking is often difficult to discuss, Wyatt said communication is essential.

“Don’t be afraid to talk about it,” she said. “It can seem like a really hard topic to discuss, and a lot of people don’t want to talk about it because it’s scary, but the more people who talk about it and the more people who are aware, the better we can work to stop it.”

Members of FIAT are including questions concerning trafficking on their routine intake surveys because, though they may not know it, many agencies are already serving a population of trafficking victims, Wyatt said.

A gap assessment will be used to determine which additional service providers may be needed to help prevent local trafficking and provide for victims.

“We just want to continue to deter people from purchasing sex with other humans and help our community members to know what to look out for and to help keep Flagstaff safe for everyone,” Wyatt said.

Businesses are encouraged to put up the organization’s posters and stickers in public areas like bathrooms, while individuals interested in volunteering or being trained can contact FIAT. Most importantly, though, anyone can strive to be more aware of their surroundings to report suspicious behavior and help prevent the ongoing crime of human trafficking.

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 

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