I was late, leaving Chapel Hills Mall for a Friday evening meeting. I hurried to my car in the mostly empty lot, and as I started the engine, a movement on the passenger side caught my eye.
A girl shorter than my roof, with a clean-cut dark bob and carrying a large clipboard with what appeared to be a script and crystals attached to it, stood there, pointing at my window. Her teenage eyes pleaded with me to roll the glass down.
I glanced around and, not seeing anyone else, lowered the window halfway. She softly asked if she could talk with me.
"Actually," I answered, "I'm running late for a meeting."
She continued on, as if I hadn't said anything, slowly in broken English.
"I'm collecting donations. For my church."
"I'm really sorry," I said, shaking my head. "I can't."
She nodded, and backed away.
I pulled forward through the parking space, drove five or six spots up the lot aisle. Then hit the brakes.
Oh shit. I'm heading to a meeting about human trafficking — and that might have been a victim.
I turned to look back, but as quickly as she'd appeared, the girl had vanished.
Meanwhile, across town ...
As I sat through my meeting I couldn't forget her pale, heart-shaped face. Regret sat heavy in my stomach. Though I was writing a story on what's often known as modern-day slavery, I realized I had no clue what to do when actually confronted with it.
The following day, I met Sarah Ray, co-owner of Yobel Market, for an interview. As we were wrapping up, thoughts of the girl nagged at me, and I shared the story. It was more a confession than a conversation topic — until she stopped me and said she'd encountered a similar situation the same day.
A boy had walked into her shop in Old Colorado City, with a script, and in broken English told her he was from another country, representing a church. He was trying to sell hanging crystal art to raise funds for missionary work.
Ray, who has been involved in the field for a few years through her fair-trade store, peppered the boy with questions: Where are you from? Where's your family? How long have you been doing this? Where are you staying?
He answered vaguely, but she did learn that he was from Kazakhstan, traveling with four others, none family. Then she asked him if he wanted to be doing this. He said yes, but wouldn't look her in the eyes.
As he left the shop, Ray followed him and told him if he decided he didn't want this life anymore, and needed help, to come back.
One and one together
Individually, we'd questioned what we saw. Together, we knew something wasn't right. And yet we still didn't know what the next steps should be.
In my research, I had come across CoNEHT, the Colorado Network to End Human Trafficking, which through the Denver-based Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance runs a 24-hour statewide hotline. While Ray went the route of contacting the Human Trafficking Task Force of Southern Colorado — she had attended a few meetings of theirs — I contacted CoNEHT.
My call was taken by Stephanie Bell of Prax(us), a Denver-based nonprofit that fights domestic human trafficking, particularly of homeless youths. Even though all signs pointed to this case involving two international teens, she listened to my story and said she would pass it on to those in the international advocacy arena.
I ended my hotline call somewhat dejected, though I'd laid some groundwork. Lauren Croucher, the COVA human trafficking project manager, told me later that CoNEHT reports cases, domestic or international, to local law enforcement when there are signs of abuse, or when the hotline has received at least five reports with similar information.
Oddly enough, I had another interview scheduled that afternoon with a Colorado Springs Police Department officer.
Officer Chris Burns, a member of the local Task Force, escorted me inside the Sand Creek Substation. I shared my incident with him, as well as Ray's, and asked if I'd done the right thing, or if there was more I could do, and what someone on the street should do in a similar situation.
First and foremost, he said, for anyone who notices something odd, "Safety is paramount. Don't take any risks." I thought back to that parking lot, and recognized that someone had probably dropped that girl off from another vehicle and had been watching until she was ready to be picked up again. How else could she have appeared and disappeared so quickly?
Maybe I had done the right thing for the time and place.
In a safer environment, however, asking questions is appropriate. For instance: Do they have ID? (If they don't, it may mean an "employer" is controlling their documents.) Do they have freedom within their job — as in, can they make their own decisions and could they tell their boss they're resigning and leave? Are they in control of their earned money?
If you notice a vehicle, Burns adds, write down the license plate number. This could be key information fopr law enforcement tracking a victim or a trafficker.
Burns notes that local law enforcement is overwhelmed with the volume of cases day to day, and just like Bell told me, it's hard to follow up on these types of incidents. However, the more information a bystander can obtain safely, and pass on, the more likely something will be done.
As for Ray, she contacted the Task Force, and Betty Edwards, its chairperson, has been passing the details on to other professionals in the field. I attended September's Task Force meeting, shared our combined stories — and heard from two other women who had similar questionable experiences recently with children selling candy on the west side.
Edwards confirmed for me later that because the local Task Force is still a fairly new and small group, contacting CoNEHT is the best first step; they'll know whether to forward the information or not.
Beyond that, a call to the CSPD or the El Paso County Sheriff's Office can only help cover the bases.
I'm still thinking about the little crystal girl. I hope I'm wrong about her situation, and that she is OK.
But if nothing else, I'm grateful for the moment she was in my life.