The scope of Alaska’s sex trafficking problem remains unclear, but there’s plenty that can still be done to help victims — that’s the conclusion of a report issued by state task force charged with studying the issue.
Over the past few months, a team of state officials and non-profit workers have been trying to figure out the extent of sex trafficking in both urban and rural Alaska. They went out to Anchorage, and Bethel, and Hooper Bay, and they learned about what makes a young person vulnerable to trafficking and heard how most of the state’s shelters don’t have the resources to deal with victims. But even with all the testimony and research they did, it was still a struggle to quantify the number of Alaskans coerced into prostitution. Alaska courts have only made about 20 sex trafficking convictions over the past six years.
Attorney General Michael Geraghty was part of the trafficking task force, and he says that’s because by its very nature, the problem is underground.
“It’s beneath the surface, and the fact that we can’t get more hard data on it doesn’t mean that it does not exist,” Geraghy says.
The task force was mostly left with anecdotes when they talked to shelters and social service organizations across the state, and a report they issued this month speaks of both gaps in information and gaps in services.
But the anecdotes that the task force heard were — in their words — “heartbreaking.” Gwen Adams, a pastor of women’s ministries at ChangePoint Church in Anchorage, served on the task force, and she told her own story about trafficking before a legislative committee on Wednesday. Adams described a woman she had known who had been coerced into prostitution by a family who was supposed to be fostering her. When she learned this, Adams asked the woman if she was participating in this against her will.
“She said, ‘No, I have a choice.’ And I said, ‘Well, what happens if you would refuse.’ ‘Well, I would be beaten. I wouldn’t get to eat. And I would be locked in a closet for days.’ ‘So, how do you have a choice?’ ‘Well, I can choose to be beaten or I can choose to have sex.’ Completely unaware of the fact that she was being trafficked or a victim. She just felt like these were her circumstances in life and had no way out.”
The task force came up with about a dozen ways to help the woman described and others like her. In their report, they advocate for more short- and long-term shelters, and they say they would like to see prosecutors and social workers trained to better recognize trafficking victims. They also said that Alaska’s laws should be strengthened so that the state could subpoena websites where solicitation occurs, like Craigslist.
The task force also suggested that the legislature might consider changing the law so that trafficked prostitutes could have their records expunged. Attorney General Michael Geraghty says a provision like that would make it easier for trafficking victims to find jobs and secure housing.
“If you’re a victim like that, you should have an opportunity to clear your record and be able to return to gainful society,” Geraghty says.
An expungement law for trafficking victims exists in a handful of other states.
The task force’s work is complete with this report, but they’ve asked the state to create a permanent working group to implement these recommendations and continue studying the issue of sex trafficking.
A new report says human trafficking most likely occurs in Alaska but it’s not clear how prevalent the crime is.
A state task force on human and sex trafficking presented its findings to a joint session of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees on Wednesday.
The legislature passed a measure establishing the task force last year.
While both the governor and lawmakers have raised concerns with the issue, the extent and nature of trafficking remains elusive because of its underground nature and the fact that many victims don’t report the crime.
The five-month study yielded 13 recommendations on how to better identify victims and raise public awareness of the issue, including making permanent a working group that could continue researching the subject.