SHERIDAN — Over the past five years, public understanding about human trafficking in Wyoming has increased drastically, according to a study by the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center. Sheridan-based nonprofit Uprising shares the credit for spreading awareness and education.
Uprising’s co-founders have pushed their goals further in the past five months, having trained more than 500 people in Sheridan County with human trafficking identification and prevention tactics.
Terri Markham and Alexandra Stevenson continue to make strides toward their goals to develop safety webs within Wyoming communities, starting with Sheridan.
Stevenson and Markham met with Gov. Mark Gordon over an informal dinner Dec. 6 and presented their knowledge and strategic plan to address human trafficking in the state. One of their goals included a request for a public proclamation in January to honor Human Trafficking Awareness Month, which Gordon granted.
The proclamation was signed at the capitol Thursday.
Gordon’s proclamation also comes as state leaders, officials and advocates have started to look at ways to reduce the number of Indigenous women, men and children who go missing or are murdered.
Stevenson’s mother won a dinner with the governor at a Brinton Museum Gala and turned the opportunity over to Stevenson and Markham to share their platform.
Markham said she hopes the proclamation will be a “springboard” of recognition for the issue in the state, and a step toward proactive efforts to address human trafficking before it becomes an unstoppable problem. Wyoming was the 50th state to enact human trafficking laws but could be the first to embed prevention and education in each community, she said.
Communications director for Gov. Gordon’s office Michael Pearlman said the dinner was “eye-opening” for the governor to hear their perspective on human trafficking, including Stevenson’s personal experience as a trafficking victim. One prominent takeaway was understanding that human trafficking is an issue that affects women regardless of social status and identity, Pearlman said.
The governor was pleased to hear about local, on-the-ground efforts to work with law enforcement, Pearlman said. Gordon hasn’t yet decided if he will renew the human trafficking task force, upon whose recommendations Gordon would base future actions regarding human trafficking prevention, he said.
WSAC compiled a follow-up study about understanding of human trafficking, which assessed 52 people in law enforcement, fuel stations, hotels and gentlemen’s clubs in 14 Wyoming communities.
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As of Jan. 3, results show comprehension has shifted from 2013, when most believed human trafficking referred only to females taken from other countries for prostitution. New definitions from participants identified persons used for slavery, service, drugs, sex and labor and recognition for the roles abuse of power, control, force, fraud and coercion play in human trafficking cases.
Compared to most respondents feeling “less knowledgeable” about human trafficking in 2013, 80 percent reported feeling somewhat to very knowledgeable. No respondents identified formal protocols for how they could respond to a human trafficking case in 2013, while nearly three quarters now report knowing at least one.
In 2013, most respondents said human trafficking was not a problem or a small problem in Wyoming. In 2019, 97 percent said it was a large problem in their communities. The study also claimed respondents showed a higher level of understanding of ways to identify potential cases.
Stevenson said it is important to share a survivor’s perspective in the context of human trafficking and she used her own story as a call to action at the proclamation. Overall, the goal is to create human connection, she said.
Markham said each county has a domestic violence and sexual assault organization funded by federal victim services dollars, which provide invaluable resources and support. However, few are working solely on human trafficking prevention and education. Uprising works alongside organizations like Sweetwater Against Trafficking to focus on preventing future victims and exploiters.
Last year, the human trafficking task force encouraged counties to be proactive about focusing on work in their region, Markham said.
So, they founded Uprising as a pilot program to see what will be most effective. Markham said they hope to make Uprising a statewide organization with a prevention format that can be replicated in each county.
Uprising is planning to begin prevention classes at Normative Services Inc. Academy and the Wyoming Girl’s School in the coming month — deliberately focusing on educating vulnerable youth. Stevenson said in her own case, she knew what was happening to her was wrong, but didn’t understand that it fell under human trafficking until years later — a learning experience she hopes to spare today’s youth.
Stevenson said she expects more disclosures to arise out of youth education because they might then have the tools to recognize what is happening in their own life or to someone they know. One of the challenges with obtaining a disclosure is ensuring the people with whom youth are in contact understand the next steps to take in a human trafficking case, Stevenson said.
“You usually get one shot at a disclosure, especially from youth,” Stevenson said. “And if they get laughed at or turned away or told that, ‘that doesn’t happen here,’ or something like that, you’re not going to get a second shot.”
The five-module classes are intended to provide tools to identify red flags in unhealthy relationships, heal from past trauma and identify a safe adult, Stevenson said.
The format lends itself to discussion, is interactive and tailored to each group. One goal is to remove the isolation associated with trauma and promote the idea that no one is in their struggle alone, she said. Youth in their classes often come to the same realizations and conclusions as adults.
Uprising is applying for a large grant to take their Sheridan pilot program across different counties, schedule large-scale training dates and keep momentum going around the conversation about human trafficking.