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Hotel workers learn to spot human trafficking

Posted at 10:44 PM, Jan 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-30 10:27:46-05
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) -- You may have walked by one in the hallway, or be in the hotel room next door.
Human traffickers often use hotels or motels to exploit teens, selling sex behind closed doors. Non-profits and law enforcement in Southern Arizona are raising awareness about the issue and training staff.
"Everyone here thinks, well it doesn't happen here," said Sierra Vista hotel manager Jenna Alexander. "So I don't think a lot of people are aware of the warning signs."
Since 2007 about 1,400 cases of human trafficking in hotels and motels have been reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. The center reports that in 2015 in Arizona 116 cases were reported. But experts say it's hugely under reported, and often labeled as domestic violence. 
"It's a very difficult crime to spot and to prosecute," said Detective Sergeant Tony Mapp with the Arizona Department of Public Safety. "You have to get that person to realize they are victim. They are a victim, they were manipulated by an older person, a family member."
That intense mental manipulation is something Savannah Sanders knows all too well. Sanders was sexually abused at the age of six, picked up by a pimp at 16, then trafficked out of a massage parlor for nine months.
"I didn't feel like I could ask for help, and I don't know if I felt like I deserved help at the time," Sanders said. "I think I felt like I deserved to be there because I had dropped out of school and I had done drugs, and I wasn't this nice little girl."
After more than a decade of abuse then therapy, Sanders now works for the Safe Action Project. The project started in October 2014, and through grant money is run by the Sandra Day O'Connor Institute. Sanders trains hospitality workers to spot human traffickers who can serve as the eyes and ears for police, and travels across Arizona and to 9 other states.
The training is available online.
The 4-P Project based out of Sierra Vista brought Sanders and the project to the area. The non-profit began about a year ago, and co-founder Stephanie Ransom says they work with the community because a lot of people don't know trafficking is happening in their own backyards. 
"We started with a passion. My daughter, actually with her time in the service, saw human trafficking overseas," Ransom said. "And it bothered her the entire time, so when she came home and discussed it with me we decided we were going to do something about it."
How do you spot human trafficking at a hotel or motel? Some signs include a young girl or boy might be with an older adult, the child is not dressed appropriately and watched closely. Also, lots of people may be going in and out of the room. 
Sanders says those are just a few signs that could be innocent behavior, when added up could point to human trafficking. While traffickers and their victims all look different, Sanders says many victims are vulnerable young people, often runaways or homeless youth that have already been subject to abuse.
"My whole life from a very young age, I always felt that everything was my fault. That I was just innately bad," Sanders said. "Something was always wrong with me, and that's what abuse and trauma does. It distorts our sense of self."
Sanders wants other survivors to know that it's not their fault. The now married mother of four uses her experiences to speak up for the thousands of survivors who remain invisible.
Experts say you should not directly approach a potential human trafficker, you can call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888. Your report gets forwarded to the proper law enforcement agency in your area.