Friday, May 24, 2024


by Jennifer Passaro Staff Writer
| February 9, 2020 12:00 AM


Illustration by JOSEPH CLICK/Press

In Idaho, law enforcement officers can arrest children for prostitution.

Until last year, officers had few other options to get children, often girls, off the street and out of their trafficker’s control.

Last year, the Idaho Legislature unanimously passed a human trafficking law, defining sex and labor trafficking as criminal. The legislation also created safe harbor provisions to protect minor victims of human trafficking.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking is “modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”

“Now we have a law to make those arrests,” said Jennifer Zielinski, executive director of the Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition. “But the cop is still focused on drugs, not on the two young girls in the back seat.”

Zielinski advocates for a huge mental shift in how law enforcement and the public think about prostitution. For the most part, she argues, few individuals willingly sell their body for sex. Most prostitutes are victims of sex trafficking.

“Prostitution is punitive,” Zielinski said. “Prostitution as an individual willingly selling themselves is an illusion that the individual is in charge, versus the forced, fraud, or coercion in exchange for monetary gain or value we actually see.”


Zielinski suggests that a typical trafficker controls 5-10 individuals, most often young women and girls. Traffickers groom victims for months or years through social media, offering modeling gigs, music careers, romance, financial security, and for the most vulnerable victims, perceived love, emotional security, shelter, and food.

Through false promises, traffickers use fraud to control victims. Victims can be physically restrained and forced into labor or sex. Coercion often happens with drug addiction or gifts. Victims must perform for their next fix.

“Within 24 hours of being on the street, an individual is approached by a trafficker or recruiter,” Zielinski said. “The most at risk populations are those in foster care, the homeless, those in shelters, or those with family dynamics of violence, abuse, and substance abuse. Recruiters use that vulnerability.”

Nationally, 1 in 6 homeless minors are victims of human trafficking.

It is a multi-billion dollar industry with considerably low risk for a high profit.

Human trafficking comes in three forms: labor, sex, or a combination of the two.

On average, a sex-trafficked girl brings in $250,000 per year for her trafficker, according to the Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition.


Traffickers shuttle young victims into Idaho from Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Spokane, and Ontario, Canada, where they rent Airbnbs and set up house parties to attract customers, Zielinski said.

“Law enforcement doesn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “A child will be slapped with a misdemeanor for being a runaway. We have such a backwards view about how to handle these situations.”

Polished and articulate, Zielinski stays away from specific human trafficking case details and sticks to the numbers. Through this she aims to create tangible change. Her job requires being on the ground, every day, to help victims.

The Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition will eventually operate three facilities in the Boise area to care for victims. Solace House Outpatient Clinic opened in June 2019 and provides trauma-specific counseling, case management, and peer support. In just three months, Solace House Outpatient Clinic identified 21 victims of sex trafficking, two suspected victims, and three individuals presenting high risk factors to become victims. Twenty-two victims were female and four were male.

“All of them are at risk,” Zielinski said. “One hundred percent of them have in one way or another attempted suicide. They need intensive services. The funding is critical.”

Since July 1, the clinic provided 181 direct services.


While legislation defined human trafficking as a crime, mandates are needed to prioritize law enforcement training in identifying human trafficking and to fund the necessary services to keep victims from relapsing, she said.

The Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition’s Harbor House will open this year to provide emergency and transitional housing for women fleeing sex trafficking. Work continues on Solace House, a safe house for minor victims of sex trafficking, ages 11-17.

Law enforcement, Department of Corrections, and hospital staff in the Treasure Valley provide direct referrals to the outpatient clinic.

Zielinski and her staff have to do the work of helping people believe in their own value.

It is devastating work that takes years, if not lifetimes, she said. Each housing program provides continued care through the Solace House Outpatient clinic and community partners.

Zielinski stressed that victims very rarely self-identify. They need trained law enforcement personnel, social workers, and counselors to help them.

As the safe harbor law now stands, individuals can receive diverted offenses only if they self-identify as a victim of human trafficking. That means if a minor is charged with possession of a controlled substance as a direct result of being a victim of human trafficking, the minor is only protected if they identify themselves as being a victim of human trafficking.


“We serve victims of trafficking,” said Chauntelle Lieske, executive director of Safe Passage in Coeur d’Alene. “Sometimes it can be masked as a domestic violence relationship. Victims believe their trafficker is their boyfriend. Or they identify as a sexual assault survivor.”

As the only community-based victim agency program with shelter in Kootenai County, Safe Passage provides a vital resource for victims of human trafficking in the panhandle. In 2019, they served over 1,600 women and children fleeing domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape, and seeking emergency shelter.

Even with laws on the books, if law enforcement personnel aren’t trained to look for human trafficking, they might not see it.

When asked if any arrests had been made for human trafficking in Kootenai County, Lt. Ryan Higgins of the sheriff’s office said no.

“We haven’t seen any instances of that or had reports,” Higgins said. “I know it's a problem across the country; we haven’t had any experience of it in the county.”

The story is pretty much the same at the Coeur d’Alene Police Department.

“I think we have some element of it,” Capt. Dave Hagar said. “It is a very hidden type of crime. Separate parties will help us to identify it. We’d be fooling ourselves if we said there wasn’t human trafficking coming through our region.”

Zielinski said more is needed. Much more.

“We need buy-in from law enforcement,” she said.

Without the tools to use the law, Idaho law enforcement officers will continue to criminalize victims of human trafficking as prostitutes instead of criminalizing the traffickers or buyers,” she said.

“We’ve gotten some bulletins,” Higgins said. “We haven’t had a class yet, but we are working on scheduling a class this summer through the FBI.”


Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, sits on the subcommittee for human trafficking, part of the Governor’s Idaho Criminal Justice Commission. She helped create the legislation that passed last year.

“It was really important that we passed the legislation we did, because, as a state, we hadn’t formally defined [human trafficking],” Wintrow said. “We couldn’t charge the case for what it was. We had to charge it as an underlying crime.”

Wintrow and Zielinski stressed the importance of adequately training law enforcement.

“It takes resources,” Wintrow said. “Local budgets don’t support units to work on this crime. That's just not going to put a dent in investigation and stopping the crime. It’s time to raise awareness in education, to understand what this crime is. This crime is harmful for a lifetime.”

“We need to shift the culture, the stigma,” Zielinski said.

Last weekend marked one of the highest volumes of human trafficking in the United States, the Super Bowl.

Whether or not the event actually is the single-largest day of sex trafficking in the country doesn’t shift the importance of recognizing the spike in numbers.

“At any event that is male dominated, you will have trafficking,” Zielinski said.

Major sporting events, rallies, and man-camps, like in the oil fields of the Dakotas, all see major jumps in instances of sex trafficking.


“While movements like #MeToo have started to bring crimes like sexual harassment and sexual assault out of the shadows, human trafficking largely remains hidden,” Megan Thomas, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s communications specialist, wrote on that website. “Putting an end to human trafficking starts with acknowledging its existence.”

The FBI identified 260 illicit massage parlors in Idaho last year.

“We are allowing fake storefronts in the state,” Zielinski said. “Ordinances don’t require background checks.”

“Human trafficking is a very hard crime to prove,” Wintrow said. “It takes a lot of support as [victims] approach that all gets muddled. It's a really tough crime to investigate.”