It’s been almost a year since 5280 published “The Girls Next Door,” my in-depth look at the sex trafficking of minors right here in Colorado. Since then, a revised statute went into effect that better aligned our state human trafficking laws with federal ones and—the hope is—made it easier for prosecutors to charge offenders with human trafficking; in addition, a multidisciplinary Colorado Human Trafficking Council was set up through the governor’s office. Both these efforts are much-needed progress. Now, two recent developments promise to keep the momentum moving forward:
New Human Trafficking Unit
In December, Colorado’s First Judicial District Attorney’s office (which encompasses Jefferson and Gilpin counties) launched the state’s first human trafficking unit within a DA office. (A couple of other examples exist elsewhere in the country, including Manhattan in New York and Cook County in Illinois.) The group has been a long time coming. Discussions first began within the human trafficking subcommittee of JeffCo’s Child and Youth Leadership Commission in December 2013. “Our primary goal was what can we do to stop human trafficking in JeffCo,” says Katie Kurtz, chair of the subcommittee and deputy district attorney with the special victims unit of Jefferson and Gilpin counties.
The unit’s first order of business: creating a way to consistently identify high-risk individuals within the community. The “High Risk Victim Identification Tool” (launched in spring 2014) is a one-page, web-based document that outlines characteristics and/or situations (“red flags”)—such as running away three or more times in a year or tattoos/brands—that indicate that youths are vulnerable to exploitation. (Since they created an online tool, different agencies can share permissible information confidentially, ensuring they reach a larger number of vulnerable kids.) The biggest benefit of this tool, beyond preventing those at-risk from being pulled into this seedy underworld, is that it creates a “united front,” Kurtz says. Human trafficking ventures into a lot of terrain, from law enforcement to child welfare to health care; having these groups operating from the same instruction manual is infinitely more beneficial to those the group is attempting to help.
If a child is recognized as high risk, the assessor is able to put preventative measures in place, such as counseling, finding shelter, or making connections with human services. If the identification tool indicates that the subject is already being exploited, protective efforts kick in. The First Judicial District has already identified about 60 high-risk children within the community. “Our primary goal is to protect kids,” Kurtz says. “Secondarily, if we can get that child forensically interviewed and build an investigation and prosecution from that—great.”
This past fall, the subcommittee took another step in keeping kids safe by hiring a full-time law enforcement officer to reach out to the identified children. (First Judicial District Attorney Pete Weir officially announced the human trafficking unit in December.) Kurtz expects this district won’t be flying solo for long: “I’ve already had some contacts from other DA’s offices within the Denver metro area,” she says. “I think we’ll see some other units pop up.”
Restore Innocence Opens Second Home
Restore Innocence—a Colorado-based nonprofit that provides restoration bags to rescued girls, offers a mentoring program for sex trafficking survivors, and runs a safe house called Cinderella House for ages 18 and up—is increasing its ability to help rescued girls with the opening of Wildflower Ranch next month. (The organization officially became a licensed residential child care facility last Thursday, and staff training begins March 30.)
The ranch is a safe recovery venue for girls aged 13 to 17 (it can house up to eight at a time) who are trying to leave the “life” behind. The 5,000-square-foot house, located north of Colorado Springs, has a large kitchen and dining room (the girls will choose their own food and help the staff cook family-style meals), four bedrooms, a library, game room, and wraparound deck that offers sweeping views of the 20-acre property. Co-founder Michelle Korth hopes to add some trails on the property as well as swings. “One of my favorite memories with one of our first girls was going to visit her at Excelsior Youth Center,” Korth says. “They had a swingset outside, and we sat and swung, just sharing and processing.”
As I discussed in “The Girls Next Door,” survivors of human trafficking have experienced a very specific, very intense blend of traumas. A specialized staff is required to aid in recovery. Wildflower Ranch will offer that and more. Beyond counseling and participation in a mentorship program, the girls will have access to the horses (and chickens!) on the property, a converted barn that will be used as an on-site school, and a community room that will likely be used for dance, yoga, art, and music. A small staff will rotate shifts 24 hours a day, so there will always be someone on-hand for the residents. Girls will be referred to the ranch from human services, law enforcement agencies, or the court system.
“They’ve been denied choice so that’s a huge part of what we want to do—empower them with healthy choices in as many thing as we can,” Korth says. Ideally the girls will stay for up to two years, but it’s not a lockdown facility so they’re free to leave when they choose. “This has been a dream of ours since 2010, and we’re so excited to have this place for the girls,” Korth says. “But at the same time it breaks my heart that we even have to have this type of home—that there are 13-year-old girls who need a home like this because of what they’ve been through.”
If you’re interested in getting involved, Restore Innocence is specifically looking for outdoor home decor, from a patio set to a fire pit to picnic tables. You can also donate products for the group’s restoration bags or donate your time as a mentor.