Sex trafficking is often referred to as modern day slavery. It involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of commercial sex act. It's happening right here in our own community.
We have seen two major announcements from law enforcement in the last two months. Idaho made its first conviction and sentencing under the federal sex trafficking statute. Michael Wade will spend 20 years in jail for victimizing a 15-year-old girl in Boise.
And in December, several counties on the Oregon-Idaho border took part in a sting operation in Ontario and arrested 15 people. Three of those arrested were from Nevada, while the rest live right here in the Treasure Valley.
"I think by doing that sting operation that we did, not only did we have our wake-up call as law enforcement, it was was able to show people it is a problem," said Ontario Police Chief Cal Kunz.
"Somewhere along the road it's going to affect us all," added Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue. "Financially, socially, taxes, the costs of criminality... there's everything in to it."
Then there are the victims of sex trafficking, many of whom are only teenagers who have been targeted by "pimps."
"Usually it's not a case of kidnapping, but maybe they find a runaway at a truck stop," said Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe.
"They are looking for very particular type of victims," said Jeannie Strohmeyer, with the Nampa Family Justice Center. "Maybe people who have been abused or looking for love."
We sat down with a Nampa woman who is a former sex trafficking victim. "Sandy" asked that we conceal her identity for safety reasons.
"I was in a pretty abusive childhood situation," she said. And that led to her getting caught up in the sex trade shortly after high school. The sexual assaults she experienced as a child created a lot of unhappiness and loneliness.
"It has to do with fulfilling something that's empty inside," Sandy said.
She eventually turned to drugs. Her drug dealer was also a pimp and convinced her to be a part of the lifestyle with promises of freedom and money.
But those promises proved empty, and she quickly felt trapped and violently abused. She continued on a destructive path until she was arrested.
"They've been isolated very purposefully," said Strohmeyer. "The traffickers know what they're doing and they do their job well and it keeps the victims quiet."
Victims rarely seek help until, like Sandy, they are behind bars and safe.
"Part of the dynamics of abuse, and it's the same for domestic abuse, a lot of that is silent and private because of the dynamics of how intense the abuse can be and the great fear that's always there," said Strohmeyer.
That fear means there are many more victims out there than we know about. but local law enforcement are trained to spot them. Some things they're looking for are teens who seem fearful, anxious and depressed. They avoid eye contact and show signs of physical abuse. Sex trafficking victims may also seem confused about their surroundings if they have been from place to place.
"When we do come into contact with these victims we are going to get them help," said Kunz.
Fortunately there are a number of local resources out there that are confidential, safe and free, including the Nampa Family Justice Center.
"Our goal is to not only help them through the crisis, but also help them with a mindset change," said Strohmeyer.
A mindset that you can have a better life. It's something that took Sandy a long time to figure out, and she encourages past and current victims to seek help.
"Anyone who has gone through trauma isn't just going to wake up one day and be better," she said. "You have to find a way to cope with it."
Community members are encouraged to watch for sex trafficking signs as well. If you suspect someone is a victim, seek help for them. We have provided some resources available below:
FACES Victim Center (Ada County)