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Davis Journal

Sex trafficking can happen anywhere – even in Utah

Jul 12, 2022 03:09PM ● By Becky Ginos

SALT LAKE CITY—Most Utahns don’t think sex trafficking takes place here. That’s something that happens in Mexico or other places not in Davis County – but it does. Last October, a Bountiful man was arrested on multiple counts of human trafficking and 24 people were arrested in Utah in a sex trafficking ring in March. Last week, the Dean and Bonnie Stephens Memorial Fund gave a $100,000 grant to build Aspen Magdalene House, Utah’s first residential treatment program for sex trafficking survivors.

Jana Christiansen, daughter of Dean and Bonnie Stephens whose uncle is the late Jim Hansen, a Davis County resident, presented the check on her parents’ behalf to board members at a “Sex Trafficking – It Happens Here” luncheon in Salt Lake City.

“I became involved in 2018 with Thistle Farms run by the Episcopal church,” said Christiansen. “They give women who have been trafficked a home where they can live with their peers, receive addiction therapy, counseling, medical and dental services and employment. They’ve been around for 32 years and have had an 80 percent success rate.”

Christiansen said she was interested in their nonprofit. “I thought the foundation could help. I’m in long-term recovery myself. It was in step with what we do.”

Women who have been trafficked don’t always fit the stereotype, she said. “I knew of one woman in San Francisco who was not in poverty at all. Another had a degree in social work and had a wonderful family but became addicted. At first they don’t identify as being trafficked. They say my boyfriend asked me to expose myself to his friend and he’d take money or something similar.”

Working in the family center at the Road Home, Christiansen said she was prepared for the addiction piece but not the sexual abuse of children. “The children were being abused and the women were trafficked. They couldn’t find a job to make any difference. I knew I needed to be involved. I became passionate in 2018.”

There’s enough data that shows it happens here, she said. “We’re really lacking in-home services in the West. There are no long-term treatment programs. Victims are sent to domestic violence shelters. They go from trauma to trauma.”

They need a place to go and heal, said Christiansen. “Love is our business model. We want this to be a nurturing sanctuary.”

Stacy Symons was a victim of trafficking but it took time for her to recognize it. “They go through a grooming process to make you vulnerable to be trafficked,” she said. “I have a history of rape as a teen that colored my experience.”

Symons was born and raised in Utah. “I went to Bingham High and joined the marines after I graduated,” she said. “I had a head injury during basic training that caused a traumatic brain injury. It caused anger issues and emotional dysregulation.”

After leaving the military, Symons got into a relationship that she believed to be genuine. “I discovered he was still using and he became abusive,” she said. “I cared for him but he was lying. He introduced me to meth and two months in he pulled a gun and put it in my face. I was strong enough to walk away.”

Symons said she was trying to find someone who could tell her what to do because she was self medicating. “That’s when I met the person who trafficked me. Three weeks into the relationship I thought he loved me and he showed me affection. I felt supported and I thought he was helping me with my habit.”

Then he started leaving her places for hours at a time. “He brought me to a person’s place and the guy said ‘you know why you’re here? You're here for payment,’” Symons said. “I was a debt. I was non consequential, not valued as a human.”

Somebody overheard them talking about the drug debt, she said. “He ended up protecting me. He wouldn’t leave me alone. I realized he loved me and the only thing that distanced me from the trafficker was when he went to jail.”

In 2016 Symons got clean and she has a job. “It takes self accountability and community and a willingness to show up for yourself,” she said. “I got brave enough to tell my story. If I only help one person it’s worth it.”λ