Panelists discuss problem of human trafficking at February's Buechner Breakfast
Panelists discuss problem of human trafficking at February’s Buechner Breakfast

About 1,000 people were arrested in the United States last year for human trafficking schemes, but that’s just “skimming the surface” of a national scourge that exists in the shadows, said a federal agent who specializes in trafficking cases.

Kumar Cortez Kibble, an agent with Homeland Security Investigations, was among the panelists for Friday’s Buechner Breakfast on “The Problem of Human Trafficking and its impact in Colorado.” More than 120 people filled the Terrace Room for the event, coordinated by the School of Public Affairs’ Buechner Institute for Governance.

Other panelists included Daniel Oates, Aurora Police chief; Kathryn Wells, medical director at the Denver Family Crisis Center at Denver Health and Children’s Hospital Colorado; Amanda Finger, executive director of the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking; and Sgt. Daniel Steele, Denver Police Department and the Colorado Human Trafficking Task Force. The session was moderated by Callie Marie Rennison, associate professor, School of Public Affairs and faculty research affiliate with the Buechner Institute.

Kibble defined human trafficking as exploitation based on elements of force, fraud and coercion. “We tend to focus a lot on sex trafficking … but sometimes we neglect forced labor, involuntary servitude, debt bondage — those kinds of schemes where victims can look like anyone.”

The U.S. State Department estimates there are 14,000 to 17,000 cases of trafficking per year, but the numbers are hard to grasp, Kibble said. A big challenge for law enforcement is making people aware of the indicators of trafficking. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be the first-line responders, it’s going to be the neighbors, it’s going to be people that are in a position to identify these schemes.”

Finger said that forced labor trafficking is more prevalent in Colorado than other forms of trafficking. She noted that the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000 and local law enforcement didn’t begin receiving coordinated training until 2005 or 2006. “I think in terms of police, we have a long ways to go, partly because we don’t understand yet what those best practices are for being able to respond to the issue,” she said. In fact, Finger said, the Colorado statute on trafficking has only been used twice to prosecute cases, likely because the state has other laws on the books that prosecutors are more familiar with.

Oates agreed that the state should look at using its statute more often. Because of the resource-intensiveness of the cases, and how federal law largely defines the prosecution options, local law enforcement makes a point of turning to federal partners when it comes to investigating human trafficking, Oates said. The cases are especially tricky because the victims generally don’t want to cooperate with authorities.

In the past six years, Steele said, Denver Police identified and rescued 47 kids who were involved in commercial sexual exploitation. “It doesn’t sound like a big number, but it is a big number,” he said. “One is a big number when you’re talking about kids selling their bodies for money.”

Much of the discussion focused on prevention and protection for victims of human trafficking crimes. Steele said the Colorado Human Trafficking Task Force is working with students in Denver and Cherry Creek school districts. “We’re trying to educate our young boys and men to grow up and not pay for sex, to not pimp girls, and to not think that that’s an acceptable way to make money,” he said.

Wells said the health care community has made great strides since the 1970s in identifying victims of domestic violence. Now the community is beginning to understand the nuances of human trafficking, but the development of long-term treatment of trafficking victims, particularly mental health aspects, have a long way to go, she said.

Steele said Colorado’s Legislature needs to pass a safe harbor law so that police don’t have to make an arrest when they pick up a teenager engaging in prostitution. That way, “we can place her in protective custody under a safe harbor law where she’s never charged, but the court has to mandate her to treatment.”

Some audience members stressed to the panel that measures need to be taken to identify the root causes of human trafficking. Finger said the entire issue will require greater coordination — from working to solve the root causes, to identifying and caring for victims to prosecuting perpetrators. “Something that’s very clear to me is we have not really looked at a comprehensive approach,” she said. “… A lot of work our organizations are doing is to better figure out how we talk to each other, where our systems can better partner.”

Police are doing a much better job of being victim-centered in their investigation of these crimes, Kibble said. “Our paramount concern is not re-victimizing the victim,” he said. “…It’s all about trying to come back to the dignity of the human person we’re encountering. As we do right by the victim, we ultimately do right by the prosecution down the road.”

The Buechner Breakfast takes place the first Friday of every month, tackling some of Colorado’s biggest policy matters. The topic of the next breakfast, on March 1, is “Examining the Findings of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce Leadership Foundation’s Community Indicators Project.”

(Photo: Panelists, from left, are Kumar Cortez Kibble, Daniel Steele, Amanda Finger, Kathryn Wells, Daniel Oates and moderator Callie Marie Rennison.)

CU in the City logo