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Stories of human trafficking turn valley woman into activist

After state lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would have required the national human trafficking hotline number to be posted, residents worked to get it done through local government.

“There would be too many people possibly saved by just posting this hotline,” said Barbara Bell. “We couldn’t wait another two years (for another legislative session).”

Living in Henderson since the ’90s, Bell was shocked to hear about human trafficking in Las Vegas.

“I would hear about (human trafficking) on news reports from CNN,” she said. “It was something that happened somewhere else, not here.”

As a member of Green Valley United Methodist Church, Bell was introduced to human trafficking by Nevadans for the Common Good, an organization composed of churches, synagogues, mosques, nonprofits and other community institutions that focus on issues such as immigration and child sex trafficking.

She discovered that since 1994, there have been 2,229 children recovered from sex trafficking in Las Vegas, according to Nevadans for the Common Good.

In 2012, 107 children were rescued: three boys and 104 girls.

The youngest victim was 13. About 60 percent of victims were from Nevada.

Hearing the statistics was daunting, but after Bell heard from a victim, she couldn’t turn away.

“I was at a seminar at Green Valley United Methodist,” she said. “We were watching this documentary, and it was shocking.”

The documentary featured a 15-year-old girl from a middle-class family.

“She was having trouble getting along with her dad,” she said. “It was no different than any other teenager.”

The girl decided to run away and enlisted the help of a friend, who knew a man with a car. That man forced the girl to perform sexual acts on dozens of men each day.

“She described the first one as being in his late 50s or older,” she said. “He showed her photos of his granddaughters, who were close to her age.”

Enough was enough for Bell. She had to do something.

“I wanted to go kick in a door or go undercover and do investigation,” she said.

In the 2013 legislative session, Nevadans for the Common Good and other organizations and activists rallied behind Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto’s proposed Assembly Bill 67, which established the crime of sex trafficking of children and adults, made victims eligible for state assistance and allowed them to sue their traffickers.

Bell knew she could contribute to the cause by showing up at the hearings in support of the bill. The bill passed and took effect July 1.

Along the way, she discovered other trafficking-centered bills, such as AB338, sponsored by Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas.

One component of the bill would have required the posting of a national human trafficking hotline number — 888-373-7888 — in mass transportation areas, such as at bus stops and bus stations.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline is operated by the Polaris Project, a nonprofit — named for the North Star, which guided slaves along the Underground Railroad — that fights human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

The 24-hour service is available in about 170 languages and allows community members to report tips of suspected human trafficking anonymously and also connects survivors with help.

The hotline received 20,650 calls in 2012, according to the Polaris Project. Of those calls, 174 were from Nevada and 106 were from Las Vegas.

“It thought for sure it would pass,” Bell said.

But the bill failed.

“I heard Hambrick (upset) many of the legislators, so in return, they didn’t vote for his bill,” she said.

Not wanting to wait another two years for the legislative session to hear a similar bill, Bell and other members of her congregation and Nevadans for the Common Good sprung into action.

They met with Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who was willing to help.

“Unfortunately, Las Vegas is a destination for human trafficking,” Giunchigliani said. “It’s a big issue I know a lot of organizations are trying to fight.”

Giunchigliani reached out to McCarran International Airport and the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada to see if they would be able to assist in getting signs posted with the hotline.

“I think signs do two things,” she said. “They tell victims where to call, giving them the tools they need, but (the signs) also educate the general public.”

She said education can teach the public how to be more aware of the issue.

“It’s like child abuse 30 years ago,” she said. “They started educating the public, and people were able to report problems.”

In October, Bell flew back to Las Vegas after a vacation and realized the posters were already up.

“I got off the shuttle, and there it was,” she said.

It wasn’t just at the airport.

Buses and bus stops were equipped with posters featuring the hotline and information and tips for identifying human trafficking.

The signs on buses and at airports are just the start.

The Polaris Project, the attorney general’s office, the Metropolitan Police Department and Clear Channel recently announced a new initiative aimed at educating the public about human trafficking in Southern Nevada.

The campaign includes billboards around Las Vegas bearing the hotline number, and the effort is expected to be featured on major roadways for 15 weeks.

Five billboards have been up since Oct. 29 and are scheduled to run until Jan. 5.

Seven more billboards are expected to be up from Jan. 5 through Feb. 10.

Billboards were placed strategically on major interstates, tourist areas and communities where trafficking is suspected to be more prevalent, according to the Polaris Project. They are estimated to receive 1.6 million impressions per week.

Bell hopes to be back at the next legislative session rallying behind any bills that would help trafficking victims.

“We still need to get more awareness to people,” she said.

She thinks the next battle is to obtain funding to open a safe house for victims, which doesn’t exist in Nevada, she said.

For more information, visit nevadansforthecommongood.org or polarisproject.org.

Contact Henderson/Anthem View reporter Michael Lyle at mlyle@viewnews.com or 702-387-5201.

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