Community Partner Podcast Series: Kristen Harness with Extended Hands of Hope

Cheri Landin: Hello and welcome to The Mortgage Company’s Community Partner podcast series. My name is Cheri Landin and I am the Community Development Director at The Mortgage Company and one of the privileges of this role is that I get to interview and feature some of our community partners each month and I’ve got one here with me today that I’m really excited to have everyone learn a little bit more about. So I’m here with Kristen Harness.

Kristen Harness: Hello. Thank you.

Cheri Landin: She is the Executive Director of Extended Hands of Hope. And so what I’d like to start out with is if you could tell us, what is Extended Hands of Hope?

Kristen Harness: Extended Hands of Hope is a local 501c3 nonprofit that offers safe housing and supportive services specifically to survivors of sex trafficking. So we normally work with ages 12 to 17 and we do that through our safe home Avanti House, through Carriers of Hope Mentoring Program and Forward Learning Academy which is our onsite school.

Cheri Landin: Wow. The whole sex trafficking topic just in general I think has just gotten so much publicity as of late. We’ll talk a little bit more about details of it. Number one, give me a little history on Extended Hands of Hope, how long you’ve been around, and I’d love to know how you got involved with them.

Kristen Harness: Yeah, so Extended Hands of Hope started four and a half years ago. And I’ve been involved in anti-trafficking work in some way shape or form for about 14 years now. So I took a trip to Pattaya Thailand which is about 60 miles southeast of Bangkok and it’s a sex tourism town. So all I saw were Western men, Thai women, and children. And it was a life-changing trip for me. I thought I was going to move back there but when I came back to Colorado, I started educating myself on what I had just seen and what I had just witnessed. I started realizing over the years that this was going on in every country, and that it was the second fastest growing organized crime here in the United States and that it was happening in Colorado and that Denver was actually one of the hot spots in the nation for trafficking of minors.  I knew that I didn’t need to move back to Thailand, that there was plenty of work that needed to be done right here and in my own neighborhood. At the time when Extended Hands of Hope started, it started because we were having meetings with different social services people, FBI agents and people that encounter and work with these girls and these boys every day. And they kept telling us over and over that they had no place to bring these girls. That they would find a girl, 15-year old, who’s been abused her whole life, on top of that she was trafficked and then she was “rescued” and they had no place to bring her. So she was going to jail or she was going to detention centers, just for the simple fact that they didn’t have any other place to take her. There was also a chief of police in one of the cities, I won’t name the city, but he said I know of 14 girls that are being trafficked right now but we don’t do anything for them because we have no place to bring them. So that was just kind of the trigger, the tipping point that said there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a home for them. Let’s open a home. And I just rallied people together and did what any smart person in my position would do which would be to find people that are way smarter than you and bring everyone together. And that’s how we started. So we started late 2013.

Cheri Landin: Right.  I was introduced to Extended Hands of Hope, it was in May of last year, 2017 and I was really intrigued by it because again it’s something that really is not your typical conversation in any environment, quite frankly. So the more I started learning about it, the more intrigued I was. Could you give us a little bit of, just in general, sex trafficking, what are the stats on it? And you mentioned that Denver was kind of like a hot spot, I mean what a terrible thing to say, but that it is very prevalent here. How does Denver compare to the nation, if you will?

Kristen Harness: Yeah and just understand that when you hear of any numbers, a lot of these numbers are highly underreported. This kind of activity is done in the dark, it’s done in secret and so it’s very difficult to report numbers of victims. It’s difficult to report numbers of traffickers or money that are actually being exchanged. So when I say that on average here in the Denver area, traffickers make anywhere from 40 to 60 million dollars a year trafficking minors. That’s actually a low number. It’s even more than that. And according to one of the former Deputy District Attorneys of Jefferson County, she said that a trafficker here in the Colorado area can make a hundred thousand dollars off of one girl a year and most of them have multiple girls in what’s called a stable. So they have multiple girls that they’re trafficking.

Cheri Landin: A stable? Like a horse stable?

Kristen Harness: Yeah basically. I mean they view them as animals. They’re not humans to them.

Cheri Landin: And people can do this with A conscience apparently.

Kristen Harness: You know they’re motivated a lot of times just by money. They make a lot of money. You’ve probably heard it before but a drug you can only sell once. A human being you can sell over and over, multiple times.

Cheri Landin: Wow. Alright. So I think it would be very safe to say that just the whole entire thought of all of this, I’m going to say to 99.9% of the population, is just unacceptable. So I think if people understand the prevalence of it, that it goes on. It could be happening right under our noses or something we see on the street and we don’t know. So let’s talk a little bit about those things. Number one, what are some of the signs that we could visibly see that someone is being trafficked?

Kristen Harness: Yeah. And just to kind of add a little detail to that before I answer it. It’s very important that people educate themselves on the reality of what sex trafficking looks like here in Denver because too many times when we hear the phrase human trafficking or sex trafficking, we automatically have this image that’s in our head that takes us to some third world country or to Thailand or Cambodia

Cheri Landin: A Lifetime movie.

Kristen Harness: Correct. And so we’re thinking kidnappings and we’re thinking vans and masked men. That is not how it looks here.  So when you said it could be happening all around us, it literally is happening all around us. Denver does not rank in the top cities in the nation for trafficking if there’s not actually a significant problem going on here and the reality is that there is. What it looks like here is a lot of what law enforcement will call grooming, boy-friending. These victims are all over the Denver metro area. They’re all over Colorado. There are girls in Highlands Ranch that come from gorgeous million dollar homes with two parents in the home to people that are a single family in the lower income areas of Denver and everywhere in between. And so a lot of what happens here are these girls are tricked into sex trafficking. Nobody runs up to and says, “Oh I want to be trafficked. ” I mean, nobody does that. Traffickers are master manipulators. They prey on the vulnerable because they’re cowards. And so when you are a teenage girl or a teenage boy, just your age alone makes you vulnerable. Just being that young. The average age of entry into the commercial sex industry nationally is 12. Here in the Denver area, it’s about 15. So we’ve got kiddo’s anywhere honestly from babies actually in the Denver area, and then all the way up to about 17 and then, of course, adults. And so here in the Denver area, how a lot of trafficking happens is you have a vulnerable teenage girl let’s say. And 90 percent of these kiddos have a past history of sexual abuse. So I think another thing that’s important for people to understand is that sexual abuse among children is so prevalent all around the United States and honestly all around the world. It’s incredible when you hear people’s stories about how many people have gone through sexual abuse when they were a child. So you have a 15-year-old girl who has been sexually abused her whole life or since she was a child. On top of that now she’s being trafficked. And a lot of times what they do is they run away from these abusive households. So mom and dad are fighting or mom’s boyfriend is sexually abusing her, they run away. They’re homeless. They have no place to live. They have no food to eat, no money. All they need are their basic needs met and that’s where traffickers come in. Traffickers know exactly where to find these vulnerable kids and how to approach them. They approach them. They give them someplace to stay. They give them some food. That girl immediately has this bond with that guy. We have to get the image that, you know we think traffickers just walk around and they’re wearing like these purple robes and a cane and a gold chain. That’s not how they look. A lot of them can be very charming, very charismatic and they can draw these girls in and they give them these basic needs. They can say things like I love you, you’re pretty. I mean when you were a teenager how did it feel to just have a boy say that you’re pretty. We all, you all, when you’re a teenage girl, want that. And that’s how they trick these girls. So they give them those things. And now that girl owes them. And so what happens is it switches now and he says, “OK I’ve been doing this stuff for you, now you owe me. And you need to do this activity.” And that’s how it happens. If she says no or she doesn’t want to be a part of it, which a lot of times they, of course, do not, then that’s where this charming “boyfriend” now turns into somebody who’s very violent and threatening and says, “I know where your mom lives” or “I know where your sister goes to school” or “You have a child, I know where your child is. And I’ll do something to harm them if you don’t do this.” And that’s actually happening to a lot of kiddos right here in the Denver area.

Cheri Landin: So if you see something or you suspect something based on, whether it’s even just something you notice that doesn’t look right. You listen to your gut, something is just awkward about a situation and you’re suspicious. What do you do?

Kristen Harness: Yeah. And I’m sorry I didn’t answer your question earlier but some signs to look for and then what to do if you see those signs. A lot of times and I want to really speak to even people that work in schools or in churches or in medical facilities where you’re going to see a lot of teenagers come through. There was one statistic that showed that a mass majority of these victims of trafficking had actually visited a doctor or were in school. And if these people had known what to look out for, they would have been able to intercede and hopefully help. So there’s kind of a long list but some things to look out for if you see a young girl who is with an older man. If you have a daughter and your daughter now has this older boyfriend, is coming home with gifts, her nails done, her hair done, things like that. That is a huge red flag because like I said earlier, a lot of times what these traffickers do is they groom these girls. And so if you’re seeing that happen with any girls in your life or if you’re a teacher and you’re seeing that happen. If you’re seeing, a lot of times these pimps will brand their victims with tattoos that say “Daddy” or barcodes on them or dollar signs, stuff like that. If you see tattoos like that, that’s a huge red flag that that girl or that boy could be being trafficked. Also looking at social media sites. If a young girl is, of course, on any type of like Backpage.com or even Craigslist or is showing explicit pictures on social media and stuff, a lot of times that can be an indication that there’s something going on behind the scenes. And so a lot of times too they’re not going to school. They’re truant, there’s truancy going on. They’re running away from home. They could have black eyes and bruises, show signs of physical abuse. All of those are indicators that something’s going on. If the average person, myself included. If you see something that is suspicious to you then what you need to do is you need to call your local police station or you can call the Colorado Human Trafficking Hotline. (1-866-455-5075). What you do not want to do is go up to that girl and try to save her or rescue her or whatever you want to call it because I promise you that wherever she is, her pimp is nearby and if you do something or say something to her or she even talks to you and he sees that, she is going to pay for that. Through a beating or through something. So don’t try to be the hero and like go up and grab anybody.

Cheri Landin: It’s interesting to hear because I think that would be people’s sometimes natural instinct.

Kristen Harness: Oh it was mine. I’ve gone up to girls before and I’m trying to get them in my car and not smart. And that’s from law enforcement: not smart. You need to call law enforcement or you need to call the hotline

Cheri Landin: Alright. So there in these situations. Why don’t they leave?

Kristen Harness: Very good question. A lot of people say well why don’t they leave? They’re in America. If you know anything, even about like domestic violence victims, on average it says it takes seven times to reach out to help them before they’ll actually leave this person. So you’ve probably heard of Stockholm Syndrome, right? So with these girls, it’s the same type of concept but it’s called the Trauma Bond. So like I mentioned before, pimps are master manipulators. You’ve gotta remember that you are talking about a young girl who most likely has been abused her whole life. She’s very vulnerable, she’s she’s broken, she has no self-esteem. And she actually believes that that pimp who is abusing her actually loves her. Because yeah he may be doing this and that to me but he gets my nails done or he tells me I’m pretty or he provides me a place to live. And so to them that’s their boyfriend and they have this very strong bond actually to their pimps and it’s a very similar concept to Stockholm syndrome. And so it’s not that they’re being chained up and they can’t physically leave. That does happen sometimes. But most of the time it’s that psychological trauma bond that they have to their abuser.

Cheri Landin: Wow. All right. So what role do men play in sex trafficking

Kristen Harness: Men play a very important role. The fact of the matter is that men do drive the demand for this. The average buyer nationally and here in Colorado is a 40-year-old man who’s married with two children and makes 70 to 100,0000 dollars a year. And so men are driving this. The flip side of that is that men can also play an important role in the solution. So a few things that I wrote down here for men are: A lot of studies have shown that men that are dealing with a porn addiction, actually started there and then moved on to child pornography and then child pornography into actually purchasing sex from children. And so just to encourage men to if they have any type of addiction to pornography or anything to seek help for that in a safe space, to fight against the viewing of pornography, to going to strip clubs, to anything that has to do with the commercial sex industry, to really take a stand against that. And to also discourage the men in their life, to take a stand against the commercial sex industry. But then to also really fight for the girls and the women and the children that are in their life. And just like anybody else to really take some time to educate themselves on what this looks like here in their community.

Cheri Landin: That makes sense. Yeah, it really makes sense. I think that’s great, great words and great advice and just for everyone to hear and just think about it if nothing else. Like you said, educate yourself and think about it. So I mean clearly it’s a problem. It’s something that no one probably should feel good about but it’s real and it exists. One of the things, in the meantime, until we’re ever completely cleared up, which would be wonderful and rose-colored glasses, probably will never completely not exist. So places like Extended Hands of Hope are critical in offering these girls a safe place to be should they decide that they don’t want this life anymore. So you are a non-profit organization and clearly, you have needs. I’m certain you know financial is number one on the list especially being a new organization. Four and a half years is still what I would consider a new organization, so I know that financial donations are always important to you. If there were someone out there listening though, that really thought that they wanted to do something meaningful for this cause, what volunteer opportunities do you have

Kristen Harness: Well for the females we have taken six months to really re-establish and build a foundation for our mentoring program and we’re taking our mentoring program to the community. So it’s no longer just for girls that are in our safe home. We are going to be reaching out to young victims that are in the community that will never make it to our safe home. And so we are going to be recruiting at the beginning of March, female mentors over the age of 21, that can commit to a year of mentoring a survivor of sex trafficking. We will have some training in mid-March that they’ll have to go through and background checks and everything like that. But it’s a really great opportunity for somebody that has the time and the passion to really invest in a survivor of trafficking and somebody who just wants to be there and be a supportive positive person in her life. It’ll be for young girls that are survivors

Cheri Landin: And they need it, they’ve been through trauma.

Kristen Harness: Yes. Yeah and a lot of them do not have positive role models in their life. Not only have a lot of these girls not grown up being shown how to do good but they’ve actually been shown how to do bad and destructive things. And so just having somebody that’s there for them that’s positive in their life is a really powerful thing. So definitely mentors. Other opportunities we have, we have our community leaders of Hope Advisory Committee which we’re always looking for business professionals to join that. That gives you an opportunity to use your professional expertise and your networks to come in and spread the word about trafficking, spread the word about Extended Hands of Hope, and also then use your skill set to help us run our organization and further our mission as well. So those are kind of the two big ones right now.

Cheri Landin: OK great. Alright. Well in closing are there any final words that you’d like to say, if there’s anyone out there listening, just about the topic in general

Kristen Harness: Yeah. Final words. I always like to tell people that please when you hear this know that you will be changed, your eyes will start opening. You’re going to start seeing things around you that you probably wouldn’t have noticed before. And to really start paying attention to what’s going on around you and to not pass judgment on any girls that you see or anything. A lot of times what would happen, even with myself just to be honest and transparent, is if we see a young teenage girl who is acting rebellious or who is not dressed appropriately or is out walking the streets or something, we automatically kind of want to label her and judge her. She is a slut or she’s rebellious or whatever and we need to stop doing that because we’re talking about young teenage girls here and there’s probably something going on behind the scenes and we need to start digging deeper. And so to just really open up your eyes to compassion when you’re looking around now and seeing what’s going on around you. We live in this kind of bubble and we need to get out of that if we’re going to make any change and there’s a lot of kiddos here that need us to stand up for them.

Cheri Landin: Alright. So if someone’s listening, tuning in, reading our blogs, anything on this subject, how can someone get in touch with Extended Hands of Hope to find out more or see how they can help

Kristen Harness: Definitely can e-mail me. So it’s Kristen@extendedhandsofhope.org. Also, check out our website extendedhandsofhope.org. And we have a Facebook page that we update on a regular basis that gives a lot of information about what we’re doing and the issue itself too.

Cheri Landin: All right well I appreciate all the information. Unfortunately a not a great topic but it’s something that needs to be addressed and some awareness built around it and I appreciate you being here

Kristen Harness: Yeah I appreciate you having me. Thank you

 

 

About Kristen Harness

Kristen has a degree in Computer Science and studied business in Denver, CO. Kristen worked as a Procedure Analyst at Halliburton and then transitioned to Real Estate before beginning her work in anti-trafficking. She was first introduced to human trafficking and exploitation in 2004 during a mission trip to Pattaya, Thailand. She witnessed first-hand the reality of trafficking and exploitation that was taking place overseas. Kristen has been involved in anti-trafficking work for the last 14 years and is the Founder and CEO of Extended Hands of Hope, a Colorado-based nonprofit that offers safe housing and supportive services to survivors of minor sex trafficking.

 

 

 

Cheri Landin

 

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