As the global epidemic of human sex trafficking becomes increasingly urgent, groups in the Verde Valley are trying to raise awareness and point out that the issue hits very close to home.
In Arizona, a third of homeless youth have experienced trafficking and the average age is 14, said Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk who spoke at a fundraiser presented by the Coalition Against Human Trafficking - Northern Arizona on the evening of Saturday, Nov. 4.
“We see cases all over the state,” Polk said. “Mostly in the metro area but here in the Verde Valley as well. It’s an American issue and people shouldn’t be complacent.”
The fundraiser was held at the home of Sedona residents Michael and Christine Schroeder and the purpose of the event was to raise money to bring members of Red Light Rebellion — an anti-human trafficking group — to the Valley and train high school students and youth on picking up the signs of sex abuse and trafficking.
“They’re a younger group so they’ll be able to engage better and relate with the students,” said Holli Ploog, vice president of the coalition. “It’s about teaching them to spot the signs of traffickers and pimps and just being more aware in general.”
Ploog said the coalition began as a grassroots movement.
“We didn’t realize this was such a public issue until a few years ago,” she said. “As we learned more about it, we began to the talk to the sheriff’s office and realized it was something that hit close to home. In fact, there was recently a sting near the Village of Oak Creek.”
In August of 2015, three men were arrested on prostitution charges following the sting. Neighbors were the one’s who reported suspicious activity near the residence.
“The whole point in all of this is for people to be aware,” Ploog said.
Sedona residents, activists and concerned citizens filled the home and participated in a silent auction as speakers answered questions.
Polk, who was one of the speakers at the fundraiser said traffickers or pimps tend to go after the most vulnerable youth.
“We see a lot of cases with runaways or those in the foster care system,” she said. “What we need to do as citizens is educate, communicate and build a community that is aware and build a good sphere of influence.
Yavapai County Sheriff's Office Lieutenant Tom Boelts was also one of the speakers at the event. He said in 2014, he helped launch an operation to go after what he calls “the buyers” as victims are generally hard to find.
“It’s like supply and demand,” he said. “If we remove the demand then there will be less supply and less victims.”
The buyers, Boelts said come from all walks of life, age and demographic. He said along with undercover stings, the operation has also tested out ways from deterring people from becoming buyers in the first place.
“Public shaming is a big one,” he said. “Like posting the photos online.”
Boelts said one thing police have changed recently is their vernacular in reference to sex trafficking victims.
“We used to just call them prostitutes and treat the problem like a nuisance rather than an epidemic,” he said. That has changed, we now call them victims because no young girl wakes up one day and consents to this kind of life.”
Learn more at EndSexTrafficking.AZ.gov To report sex trafficking call 1-888-373-7888.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Coalition Against Human Trafficking - Northern Arizona. This story has been updated with the correct information.
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