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A Healing Journey for Alaska Natives: Federal Responses to Sex Trafficking in Alaska

This video introduces the issue of sex trafficking of Alaska Natives, especially adolescents and women who travel to urban areas from the villages and then lack the resources to return home. Awareness, outreach, safety, support, services, training, and enforcement are all critical elements discussed in the video. Each of these elements is key to successfully addressing sex trafficking.

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DIANE BENSON, TLINGIT, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, ALASKA NATIVE STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA – FAIRBANKS: Anchorage is the largest place in Alaska. We call it the largest village because you have thousands of Native people who live there. And on top of that, we move all the time, you know, we're always in motion. We're always going from place to place because of family, or because of our tribal obligations, our work. You go to town to shop, and too often that's where things happen.

STEPHANIE STAVELAND, CASEWORKER, COVENANT HOUSE – ANCHORAGE: Sexual abuse and rape are, unfortunately, very high, especially among the Alaska Native population. I think most people think, "Yeah, that's not going to happen to me." And it can happen to anybody.

DIANE BENSON: You end up trusting the wrong person. You think they're friendly or they're nice, and they're not.

STEPHANIE STAVELAND: They lure them into going to a party or coming and staying with them. Then their phone might get taken or it's lost, and then they don't have a way to contact their family. Their IDs might be taken, so it's hard for them to get onto an airplane and go back home. Homelessness is a huge risk for becoming a victim of trafficking. A lot of times youth feel like they have no choice but to engage in survival sex, which is a form of trafficking and can lead to trafficking situations.

DAWN NEER: The reality of it is, if you live in the bush community and you can't afford a plane ticket home, you're stuck in Anchorage.

AUDREY RENSCHEN, ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: Trafficking is an incredibly lucrative occupation. Unlike drugs, traffickers don't have to put money out there to buy the product. They've got the product; all they have to do is sell it over, and over, and over again.

KURT ORMBERG, SPECIAL AGENT, FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, ANCHORAGE DIVISION: Trafficking sounds like it's mobile, right? That people have to move, and that's not the case. Trafficking is when someone benefits or receives something of value when they've arranged for someone to have sex for money.

DIANE BENSON: And Native people are targeted.

JOLENE GOEDEN, SPECIAL AGENT, FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, ANCHORAGE DIVISION: It's unfortunately something we've learned from the traffickers. They've told us that they will recruit Alaska Native girls because they feel that they are easier to turn out. They may have come from rural Alaska where there were drug and alcohol issues, and they're easier to get addicted to chemicals. They may have had a history of sexual abuse, and they view that as well as something that makes them much more vulnerable and easy to traffic. Traffickers specifically target Alaska Native girls because they can advertise them as Alaska Native, as Asian, as Polynesian.

KURT ORMBERG: With the boom of the internet and social media, it is easier for these traffickers to communicate and start that recruitment process. So you might be somebody that...that lives in a small village, yet a trafficker can still reach you now.

JOLENE GOEDEN: We do a tremendous amount of outreach and education across the state to just raise awareness of trafficking.

KURT ORMBERG: We partnered up with the Alaska State Troopers and Anchorage PD to fly out to some of the remote villages. It was a community outreach, but it was also listening to the village elders, “What are your concerns, what are your needs?” At the school, we talk about internet safety, we talk about the growing social media. We alert them to, "Hey, if you're coming to Anchorage, here are some issues. You know, coming from the villages to the larger city, here are vulnerable spots to be aware of."

STEPHANIE STAVELAND: Traffickers hang out at the mall, they hang out at the transit center, they hang out at the airports.

DAWN NEER: Traffickers are smart. They're very manipulative and they know what to say and what to do, especially if you're a kid.

JOLENE GOEDEN: The FBI does use a victim—centered approach for all of our trafficking cases. When I get a case, I absolutely want to put bad guys in jail, but my main goal is to help someone who's in that situation get out of that situation and be safe.

AUDREY RENSCHEN: Don Webster, Jr., was known in this community as Jerry Starr. He, in old-fashioned parlance, was recognized as a pimp here in Anchorage. This was the first sex trafficking case that had ever been charged in Alaska.

SGT. KATHY LACEY (RET.) ANCHORAGE POLICE DEPARTMENT: People talked about him running girls. He also ran drugs, street-level drugs. I had had some run-ins with him on patrol. So he was always on my radar.

AUDREY RENSCHEN: What would happen before the sex trafficking law came along is that the girls would get arrested, thrown in jail, and Jerry Starr would come bail them out.

JOLENE GOEDEN: If the girls were not already addicted to crack cocaine when they met Jerry, Jerry made it a point to get them addicted to crack cocaine, and severely addicted to crack. The only way then that they could get drugs was to go out on a date.

AUDREY RENSCHEN: Whenever a patrol officer would be in a situation where he saw a young woman that appeared to be involved in prostitution, they would call Jolene, and she would go out and talk to people.

SGT. KATHY LACEY: We had a 14-year-old girl step forward and tell us, "Hey, do you guys know about Jerry Starr?" Well, of course we knew. We'd been trying to put a case together for years. And she started telling us her experience, and right there, we had our federal hook, because she was underage.

JOLENE GOEDEN: Jerry was incredibly brutal, incredibly violent. The girls described tremendous amounts of violence—beatings and sexual assaults that he inflicted on them. A big part of what we did in the Jerry Starr case, and we try to do in all cases, is connect victims to services, because they've endured tremendous trauma, sometimes in their life prior to the trafficking.

HEIDI CARSON, PROGRAM DIRECTOR, COVENANT HOUSE – ANCHORAGE: Working with victims has everything to do with immediacy. And if you can't meet that immediate need that that victim has, you're going to lose them.

STEPHANIE STAVELAND: The primary need that I see with victims of trafficking is housing and a really safe place to go.

KURT ORMBERG: The FBI has a great relationship with Covenant House. They need a safe place, and they need someone that they can trust and talk to, and that's what Covenant House provides.

HEIDI CARSON: A lot of times, those youth are not from Anchorage. They're unfamiliar with the city. They're unfamiliar with the city's culture. So for them, being out there and alone, that's a huge vulnerability. So for us, being able to provide just a safe place to begin with is a good start. Then some of the partner agencies that we work with, such as Southcentral Foundation, works with Alaska Native Indian youth.

STEPHANIE STAVELAND: Victims of trafficking have such complex trauma and such complex needs, so Covenant House can provide counseling services, drug and alcohol treatment, education services, housing services, because they've teamed with all these organizations in town.

JOLENE GOEDEN: The biggest challenge in all of these cases is gaining the trust of the victims, that they will talk to us about what is happening and feel safe in doing so.

KIM SAYERS-FAY, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, DISCTRICT OF ALASKA: What we learned in Webster is, once you get the guy off the street, then the victims will talk. But while he's still out and about, the victims will not talk.

AUDREY RENSCHEN: For these victims, many of whom had been through the court system themselves but had never been in a trial, it was quite an experience. And having to rely on police and special agents and prosecutors, who are the very people that Jerry Starr said, "Don't trust them. All they want to do is lock you up," and having had past experiences with being locked up for prostitution, it took a long time to build a level of trust and help them through the process.

JOLENE GOEDEN: We think it's incredibly important to also partner with our social service providers. They're the boots on the ground, and so they're going to be the people who are going to be identifying victims. Homer's about a 4.5-hour drive from Anchorage.

DAWN NEER: Medical staff in Homer had been getting information that there was a guy in town recruiting girls to have sex with them for drugs. Randall Scott Hines was a captain of a charter boat, where he would take people out to do halibut fishing charters, which is very popular down in Homer.

KIM SAYERS-FAY: Some really astute health care practitioners kept seeing the same teenage girls come in for addiction—related illnesses and STDs.

JOLENE GOEDEN: We had done outreach down there, so the nurse knew...the nurse knew who to call.

KIM SAYERS-FAY: Both Dawn and Jolene, working as a team, they would reach out to these young women and they'd call them and just say, "What's going on in your life? How are you?" And it wasn't always, "How are you? Give me some incriminating details about Mr. Hines." It was just, "How are you?"

JOLENE GOEDEN: Some of the crimes that we talked about with Hines, some of the trafficking crimes and drug crimes, happened on his boat.

DAWN NEER: We identified multiple victims, but we only charged him on seven victims, and then possession of child pornography, because he would videotape the kids when he was having sex with them. He got sentenced to federal prison for 10 years, and then 10 years probation and registered sex offender. We had come up to a plea agreement that said that he would sell his fishing boat and his car and put that money in a trust fund for the kids.

KIM SAYERS-FAY: $160,000 gave them something for substance abuse treatment, for mental health counseling. And then if they have done those things, and if they no longer really have those salient challenges, they can use them for any form of education that might help them a little bit in life. And they have, which is terrific. I hope what our prosecutions have shown is that there is a paradigm shift in law enforcement toward better understanding these crimes. These are crimes of exploitation, and the victims need to be understood that way, even though they don't always present themselves that way.

DIANE BENSON: We have a racist component to society in Alaska, and sometimes it's, you know, it's not very hidden, and Native people are targeted. We have to strengthen that line between rural Alaska and the big rural village of Anchorage with the huge Native population, so that people are protected and safe all the way around.

AUDREY RENSCHEN: What we've been able to do is to go out to communities where people say, "We don't have that problem in Fairbanks. We don't have that problem in Juneau. We don't have that problem in the bush." The more we help people understand it, I think we have a better chance of fighting against it.

JOLENE GOEDEN: The nice thing about having the partnership with the social service providers is those providers have been with that victim from the beginning, providing services to that victim, so we'll continue to coordinate and work with victims, sometimes even years after the case.

KURT ORMBERG: Alaska State Troopers have made a strong push on their trafficking cases up here, and so just the ability to pull in the entire state's law enforcement entities, combined with the community service providers—I think that's the approach that we need to take, and that's where we're headed.

Date Created: June 16, 2020