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Community partnership turns research into action to combat sex trafficking

May 30, 2013

When Arizona State University Associate Professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz speaks about the focus of her research – to unite and support anti-sex trafficking programs in a coordinated effort to combat human trafficking, rescue its victims and provide them with treatment and shelter – her passion is unmistakable.

“Despite numerous laws designed to protect women, men and especially children from this abuse, sex-trafficking in the United States is an increasing problem and victims are often overlooked or treated as criminals rather than individuals in crisis who need help,” Roe-Sepowitz said.

This sobering reality is the inspiration for ASU’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research (STIR). Housed within the College of Public Programs and directed by Roe-Sepowitz, the office is leading research and service activities to enhance the community’s ability to identify, understand and combat human-trafficking. Additionally, the office provides leadership and support in coordinating community resources offering holistic and comprehensive services to victims.

Providing research-driven training and support services for law enforcement, legal professionals, teachers, social service and health care providers, and community advocates working in the anti-human trafficking space also are major goals of the STIR office, Roe-Sepowitz said. 

Established in January of 2013, the office is partnering with the City of Phoenix and Phoenix Children’s Hospital to present the inaugural Summit on Sex Trafficking, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., June 4, in the Cohen Center at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, 1919 E. Thomas Rd., Phoenix. More than 150 professionals representing a range of social service agencies are expected to attend the day-long summit that will address the following topics: the state of the city on sex trafficking response, legislative advocacy, public health implications, faith-based coalition building and more.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and Jonathan Koppell, dean of the ASU College of Public Programs, will be among the speakers at the event.

“The summit will provide an ideal venue for discussing the scope of sex trafficking in our community and illustrating the positive steps being taken to combat it,” Roe-Sepowitz said. “We are also eager to share the details and lessons learned from the successful collaboration between the City of Phoenix Police Department and ASU’s School of Social Work that has made Phoenix a model city for its response to sex trafficking in our community,” she said.

Last fall, Roe-Sepowitz and James Gallagher, a lieutenant with the Phoenix Police Department Vice Enforcement Unit, released the findings of “One-Day Trafficking Snapshot of an Internet Service Provider” - a study conducted by a team of researchers from ASU’s School of Social Work in collaboration with the Phoenix Police Department.

Through the study led by Roe-Sepowitz and Gallagher, the researchers found that nearly 60 percent of the ads on Adult Entertainment Services were for selling sex/prostitution. Of those ads, more than 20 percent were identified by the researchers to feature potential adult and minor trafficking victims.

Using a comparative analysis, the study provided a snapshot of sex ads posted during a 12-hour period on Nov. 1, 2012 in five markets: Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and San Diego.

Gallagher said the research findings are being used to help inform efforts by Phoenix police to develop and implement arrest-alternative/intervention programs for adult victims of prostitution or sex trafficking, an approach that is increasingly becoming a model for other law enforcement agencies across the U.S.

ARISEPhoenix, a web-based outreach strategy, is the most recent innovation initiated by the STIR office in an effort to deliver vital social support services to a vulnerable and vastly underserved population. With support from key community partners, the website seeks to connect victims with options and access to the social services and resources needed to take their lives in a new direction.

Roe-Sepowitz said ARISEPhoenix extends the reach of Project ROSE (Reaching Out to the Sexually Exploited), first initiated in September 2011 as a two-day operation designed to connect sex trafficking and prostitute victims with social services through a diversion program, rather than with the criminal justice system.

The program has been repeated three times in Phoenix since the initial operation with encouraging results. Project ROSE IV, conducted earlier this month, assembled a broad coalition of social workers, police, health care providers, religious organizations and ASU social work students to provide a concentrated arrest-alternative/intervention program for adult victims of prostitution or sex trafficking.

Viewing them as victims rather than as criminals, police and social service providers working with Project ROSE IV made contact with 98 adult prostitutes who have a variety of legal, mental health, addiction and homelessness issues that led them to lives in the sex-trade. The operation was conducted in two, 12-hour shifts on May 16 and May 17.  A command post hosted by Pastor Brad Pellish was established at Bethany Bible Church in Phoenix.
The victims were able to connect on site with social service professionals who were able to assist them with and provide options for safe housing, crisis mental health counseling, medical services, options for detox and drug treatment, food, clothing and their initial interview for the Diversion Program provided by Catholic Charities.
“For clients who complete the Diversion Program, which can be a six-month commitment, charges will not be filed on the originating case,” said Robin Rue, an anti-trafficking case worker with the Arizona League to End Regional Trafficking (ALERT).

“Instead of being arrested, the clients we serve through Project Rose are provided a good meal, clothes, access to housing options, and medical and mental health services, if they are needed,” Rue said. “They’re treated with respect in an environment where they can feel safe.”

With no record of the arrest, those who complete the diversion program can focus on their recovery and are better positioned to pursue job opportunities and begin to move forward with their lives, Rue added.