Idaho will now have a safe facility and treatment center for children and teens who are victims of sex trafficking.
Since 2007, more than 430 calls from Idaho have been made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, according to the Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition.
Troubled youth are at a special risk, the coalition says. In Idaho, there are around 8,000 homeless students, and one in six homeless juveniles is at risk of being trafficked.
A new treatment center and shelter, called Solace House, will open in the fall or early winter for juvenile, female victims of sex trafficking, said Jennifer Zielinski, executive director for the coalition. It will be the first center of its kind in Idaho and will be equipped to provide services for five to 10 victims, ages 11 to 18.
The safe house will be located in the Boise area, but the address will not be made public. The cost for the initial setup was paid for through a private donor, and the coalition plans to make the space a designated treatment center, meaning it will be a Medicaid provider with medical services.
“We will be a resource for the entire state of Idaho, but also an emergency resource for those outside of the state,” Zielinski said.
The founder of the coalition is Fred Cornforth, owner of Community Development Inc., whose donations will fund the safe house for the first two years.
“It’s the darkest side of humanity and I wish we didn’t have the problem, (but) I am so thankful that it’s taken off the way that it has,” Cornforth said about the coalition’s community support. “It’s been encouraging.”
Cornforth said helping victims seemed like a more practical option than hunting down traffickers — a dark option he didn’t want to pursue.
“We want to hit this with light, and to me that means love and action and goodness and rightness in action,” Cornforth said. “And to me, right now, most immediately, I think of juveniles and I think of a safe place to give them.”
His company has made a three-year commitment to pay all administrative costs for Solace House, he said.
Sustainability of Solace House in the future will depend on donations and potential grants. Mental health treatment will be available, and victims may stay for up to two years. Solace House will then help the victim find a transition plan back into the community.
The plan is vital, Zielinski said, because authorities say it can take up to seven attempted rescues before a sex-trafficking victim actually gets out of the trade. Some victims might believe it is the only option they have, she said.
What is human trafficking?
There is, of course, a major difference between someone selling themselves for sex voluntarily and being trafficked, which is when a person is forced, coerced or manipulated by another person.
“They are owned,” Zielinski said. “They (sometimes) don’t have access to their own bank account, money or identification. They don’t get to come and go, and they are not making the decisions.”
The process of abuse plays a major factor as well, she said. Some victims may know their abuser and fall in love with them, not realizing that they are, indeed, being trafficked. Instead, they believe they’re paying a debt or are simply supporting an unhealthy lifestyle, such as a drug addiction.
“They go through a tactic of a beat down, manipulation, they shower (victims) with gifts and it’s a whole cycle,” she said about traffickers. “It really does mimic domestic violence and domestic abuse.”
In Idaho, unlike some other areas, trafficking is seen among family members selling their children for sex, Zielinski said. It becomes generational, or incestuous, or begins to seem normal to the victim, she said.
Grooming victims online is a common way for a trafficker to meet and manipulate vulnerable juveniles, such a child who is homeless, disabled or mentally ill, or someone who comes from a troubled home.
The trafficker gains the juvenile’s trust and that’s when the abuse begins, Zielinski said. Bringing juveniles across state lines and setting up sex for money at hotels is common, making it hard for police to track traffickers.
Zielinski said the coalition is reaching out to the community because it estimates that it will need about $10,000 a month to continue operating the Solace House after its private donation is gone. They are not just seeking monetary donations, but also in-kind donations and any volunteer services the community has to offer victims and the coalition.
The coalition also wants to educate the public about human trafficking to remove the stigma victims face.
That stigma comes because sometimes the victim does reach out to buyers, respond to buyers and set up appointments; Zielinski said they are doing so only because “their life is on the line.”
“Victims may seem willing, but they’re forced, and that’s where the education piece comes in,” she said. “Understanding that prostitution and trafficking do come hand-in-hand.”
In the 2018 legislative session, Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, attempted to increase the severity of the punishment for those who pay for sex, increasing the charge from a misdemeanor to a felony. His bill was unsuccessful.
Crane said he plans to bring an amended bill back in 2019 to hold the buyers of trafficking victims accountable.
“For me, it’s absolutely a horrific crime that’s taking place here in the state,” Crane said. “It’s a horrific crime that has been flying under the radar screen. It truly is modern-day slavery.”
Zielinski said she also supports a harsher punishment for traffickers and buyers..
There are state officials working on a designated “safe harbor law,” which many states already have on the books. A safe harbor law allows states to direct juvenile sex-trafficking victims to services, rather than criminally charging them with prostitution or crimes such as petit theft or drug possession — common things that happen while a person is being trafficked.
The Idaho Criminal Justice Commission formed a human trafficking subcommittee that has discussed safe harbor law potential at length, said Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, who is on the subcommittee.
“As a legislator, the thing I’ve been hopeful about is having a solid definition of what we’re talking about (with trafficking) and having the appropriate tools to hold people accountable,” Wintrow said.
More than that, Wintrow said she wants to see victims protected.
“We want to get the bad guy,” she said. “But I want to focus on how do I help the person who has been victimized. How do we do no harm?”
The subcommittee, chaired by State Appellate Public Defender Eric Fredericksen, has voted to propose an optional tool known as diversion for juveniles who come into the criminal justice system as trafficking victims. Under that scenario, victims could receive mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, safe housing, education and employment training.
Fredericksen told the Statesman on Friday that if the commission pursues an amendment, it could provide prosecutors with additional discretion, rather than criminally charging a victim.
The subcommittee also voted Thursday in favor of allowing a tool called affirmative defense for minors and adult victims of human trafficking. This would mean that if a victim committed a crime as a direct result of being a victim, they would not be charged. It would be applicable only if the crime they committed were considered a victimless crime.
One example, Fredericksen said, is a trafficking victim who then became addicted to drugs as a result of being trafficked. That victim could avoid prosecution for being under the influence or possessing drugs. But if that victim were committing a new crime, such as dealing drugs, which is not considered the direct result of being trafficked, they would not automatically avoid criminal prosecution.
The human trafficking subcommittee only makes recommendations to the commission, which then makes recommendations to the governor.
Crane said incarcerating victims is not the answer to stopping human trafficking, and he supports safe harbor laws to help victims.
The Solace House is one step in that direction.
Challenges come because some Idahoans simply don’t understand that it is a problem here. The coalition’s goal is to identify victims and rescue them, educating the public along the way.
“It is hard to believe that something that dark can happen here,” Zielinski said. “It will be through intensive education and awareness that we can do that.”