Group combats trafficking in human beings

The phrase human trafficking often conjures images of forced labor and sexual slavery in urban, often far-away places. But a local group says the practice may well be happening right here in Mesa County.

The Western Slope Initiative to Combat Human Trafficking is a conglomeration of church staff, school personnel, law enforcement, health professionals and other community members hoping to raise awareness of human trafficking. The group hosted a training session in June to teach 82 attendees how to recognize the signs of trafficking and what can be done to prevent the practice and protect victims and connect them with resources. The group will host another training April 18 for health care professionals.

“We need to train our health care professionals to know what they’re seeing,” and handle a situation properly once they recognize the signs of trafficking with a patient, said Beverly Lyne, a Colorado Mesa University assistant professor of nursing and member of the Western Slope Initiative to Combat Human Trafficking.

Lyne and fellow initiative member Tom Acker, a Spanish professor at Colorado Mesa, presented a briefing about human trafficking Monday to Mesa County commissioners. Acker and Lyne said human trafficking data is hard to come by, particularly in Mesa County, because few citizens know how to recognize its presence or recognize a situation is more than child abuse. They hope to change that by educating more people about the issue, forming partnerships with organizations like the county and possibly conducting a needs assessment to see how prevalent the issue may be in the community.

Although data is scarce, Acker said Mesa County has “a number of elements conducive to human trafficking,” including agriculture and agricultural tourism, having a minor league baseball team in Grand Junction, living in a resort community, the county’s connection to other states via Interstate 70 and issues with drugs in the county.

“We have to have protocols in place to protect victims,” Acker said. “We ask the commissioners to help the community gain insight about what (trafficking) is.”

Commissioners passed a resolution Monday declaring the board wanted to “raise awareness about the signs and consequences of human trafficking, by promoting opposition to human trafficking in all forms and encouraging support for survivors of human trafficking, and to prosecute and end the demand for these victims, to end the criminal activity, and to restore freedom and dignity to its survivors.” The county’s Department of Human Services director, Tracey Garchar, has also become involved in the initiative.

“Last summer when I became aware of this issue, I couldn’t walk away from it,” Garchar said. “We’re just seeking to understand right now, are there trainings we need to be looking at?”

Commissioner Rose Pugliese said she recently attended a meeting where she heard from people in nearby counties about their struggles with human trafficking in their communities.

“This whole thing has really opened my eyes,” she said.


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