Photo and Story by Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
Concerned Alaskans packed the main conference room at the Egan center yesterday during an informational session on sexual assault and sex trafficking. The session was part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs annual provider conference gathering in Anchorage. Other than an occasional fussy baby, the room was hushed as worried looking parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and others listened attentively to speakers from local FBI and Anchorage police units who focus on the sexual exploitation of young people. Sergeant Kathy Lacey who heads up APD’s vice unit says although many communities have drug units, few have police who specifically address forced sexual exploitation. Because of that she says, sex traffickers make a lot of money without being detected.
A 17-year police veteran Sergeant Lacey says she’s spent a lot of time convincing people that sex trafficking and forced prostitution is not a problem that only exists in other places. She says it’s hard to know how prevalent the problem is in rural Alaska but she says it’s a big problem in Anchorage and when they put the squeeze on sex traffickers here, they move to the interior.
She says an under laying problem is the societal acceptance of prostitution as fairly harmless or victim free.
And stories were heard. After the formal presentation, people shared heart wrenching accounts of the loss of loved ones to the hard life of addiction and being forced to sell their bodies. One tearful woman from Barrow told of how a trip to an AFN convention four years ago resulted in her younger sister’s ongoing struggle with crack cocaine and prostitution. She said her sister accompanied their father to AFN. He hugged a friend at the crowded gathering and when he turned around, her 14-year-old sister had disappeared. They didn’t find her for months. Her struggles with addiction and trauma from her experience continue to plague the family. Another woman said 20 years ago her 19-year-old sister was snatched and murdered in Fairbanks. No one has been arrested for the killing.
Diane Payne is the project director for Justice for Native Children. She helped bring speakers like Sergeant Lacey to the BIA conference because she wants people in rural Alaska to know and believe sexual exploitation of minors is happening here. Basketball tournaments, NYO, AFN and other large gatherings where teenagers can slip away into dangerous situations is a risk. She says another problem is children taken away from families in villages and placed in foster care in the city who run away.
But she says the city is certainly not the only place where young people are vulnerable.
She says abuse from the boarding-school era left many people too dysfunctional to protect their own children. But Payne says it’s not all bleak. She says increasingly, as evidenced by the full attendance at the session, village families are educating themselves and saying no more will this happen in our communities. She says she just wrapped up training in several villages in the lower Kuskokwim region and Kodiak is now having annual child abuse conferences.
Sex trafficking is real and it’s here, she says, but increasingly survivors are speaking out. She says we want our children to know they can tell us and we’ll do something.
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