Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
This is the second article in a two-part series about the often under-reported and under-detected crime of sex trafficking in New Mexico. It was spurred by the death of a 20-year-old woman who police say had been shot and killed by a hit man hired by the people who had been forcing her to sell sex.
When Michelle Schroff heard that one of the girls who used to attend workshops hosted by her nonprofit organization was killed in January after being trafficked for sex, she said she knew more had to be done to provide services and resources for at-risk teenagers.
The body of Tobi Lynn Stanfill, 20, was discovered in a Foothills park in mid-January. Before she was killed, police say, she had been forced to work as a prostitute, locked in a dog crate in a hotel and threatened if she didn’t make enough money – all signs that she was a victim of sex trafficking.
Two years ago, Stanfill had attended workshops conducted by Schroff’s Project Zoe, a local nonprofit founded to give at-risk teenage girls a sense of belonging by providing them with clothes and personal items.
After Stanfill’s death, Schroff said she began hosting breakfasts twice a month and looking for ways to fund a drop-in center for homeless teens in order to further her mission.
Schroff and a handful of other women in Albuquerque and Santa Fe are leading the charge to help victims of sex trafficking by providing housing, clothing and other services through donations, volunteer efforts and other social programs.
That’s in part because no state or local money was allocated this year to specifically help victims of human trafficking, even though advocates say victims have very specific problems that need to be addressed in order for them to recover and participate in the prosecution of those who were trafficking them.
During the 2015 and 2016 legislative session, the state allocated $125,000 in its annual budget to be used to provide social services to victims of sex trafficking, sexual assault and domestic violence, but this funding was not included in the budget this year. The money, while not enough to fully fund any services, was helpful while it lasted.
Now advocates, like Schroff, are left entirely to their own devices to try to provide services for victims through donations and their own money.
They say victims who are trying to escape their traffickers and rebuild their lives need help, with or without state money.
NM scores low grade
Shared Hope International, a Vancouver, Wash., organization working to end sex trafficking, rates New Mexico’s laws against sex trafficking as the sixth-worst in the nation. In the group’s 2016 report card analyzing state laws about sentencing, reparations and more, New Mexico received a D grade.
State law says victims of human trafficking are eligible for benefits and services from the state as long as they are cooperating with an investigation, but the state budget no longer allocates any funds for these services.
Instead, advocacy organizations work with victims to find them services through existing social programs – like Section 8 housing and food stamps or shelters and soup kitchens.
Two years ago, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office received a federal grant and worked with The Life Link behavioral health center to form a task force that focuses on identifying resources for trafficking victims throughout the state.
Lynn Sanchez, program director for The Life Link’s Anti-Human Trafficking Initiative, said more often than not the organization finds there aren’t enough appropriate services for victims in New Mexico, especially teenagers.
“We don’t have any safe place in our state, so they wind up continuously victimized,” Sanchez said. “They’re falling through the cracks in the system or they’re in juvenile detention centers or treatment centers.”
Sanchez said that when the Anti-Human Trafficking Initiative still had money from the state, it was able to provide emergency services for several victims of sex trafficking who needed a safe place to go immediately.
“That money was really important for creating that sense of well-being, safety and normalcy,” Sanchez said. “Without that, they’re back on the streets and back in desperate survival mode.”
The lack of state money for trafficking victims has authorities turning to nonprofits for help, as well.
Toya Kaplan, executive director and co-founder of Freedom House, said the Attorney General’s Office, Homeland Security and the FBI have all brought sex trafficking victims to her 20-acre property in the Albuquerque area.
Kaplan said they have housed seven women since they opened two years ago, and are funded by the Kaplan family and donations from churches and individuals.
Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office Detectives Kyle Hartsock and Kyle Woods work with the department’s Ghost Unit, named “after the part of society that is often overlooked,” according to the BCSO website.
When they begin working with a new teenage victim of sex trafficking, they also turn to nonprofits and visit Project Zoe’s clean, brightly lit boutique to pick up care packages of clean clothing and personal hygiene products.
Schroff, who provides clothing for up to 10 suspected victims of sex trafficking each month, said Project Zoe gives clothing to girls to give them a sense of normalcy and to boost their self-esteem.
“The whole purpose is to instill worth, value and that their past doesn’t define them,” Schroff said. “They’re more than what their pimp told them.”
For Hartsock, these services can make a difference in whether the victim will stick around and whether he can pursue a criminal case against the trafficker.
“We have to have a victim who is stable and who can give a coherent statement about what happened before a prosecutor is going to feel comfortable enough to take it to a grand jury,” he said.
Sanchez said that she’s seen a couple of different law enforcement agencies convict traffickers when The Life Link has been able to find consistent shelter for them.
“Either the victim is stabilized and the trafficker will plead or, if it does go to trial, the victim shows up because she has safety and support,” Sanchez said. “You can’t really touch the traffickers without providing victim support.”