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Red sand on Utah state Capitol steps calls attention to sex trafficking

SALT LAKE CITY — Preston Palmer lined seams in the front steps at the state Capitol with bright red sand Sunday to call attention to victims of human trafficking.

The 16-year-old Cottonwood High School student belongs to Backyard Broadcast, a youth movement aimed at stopping the sexual exploitation of children.

"I decided that it's a very important issue that affects a lot of people my age and that it's important for me to take part in raising awareness for it," he said. "The red sand represents people that fall through the cracks of trafficking and end up in a bad situation."

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, organized the event in recognition of national Children's Justice Day. Palmer was among a couple dozen people, including some tourists who happened by, pouring small bags of red sand into the joints on the Capitol's south steps.

The National Foundation of Women Legislators, of which Romero is a member, held Red Sand Project events throughout the country Sunday.

The Red Sand Project uses participatory artwork on sidewalks and in other areas to call attention to vulnerabilities that can lead to human trafficking and exploitation.

Utah is "pretty progressive" compared to other states when it comes to human trafficking legislation, including a safe harbor law that considers anyone under age 18 picked up for prostitution a victim of human trafficking, Romero said.

She intends to run a bill next year that removes the term "child prostitute" from state code. She also plans to seek state funding for a house to help trafficking victims or women trying to flee the commercial sex trade.

"We're focusing specifically on women and sex trafficking, distinguishing why that's different than domestic violence and other forms of violence," she said.

Longtime advocate for homeless people and refugees Pamela Atkinson plans to help raise money for the house, which would provide counseling, job training and other services

"If they go into one of the existing programs or shelters that we have, people tend to point them out as prostitutes, call them names. It's very sad. You can't recover like that," she said.

Russell Smith, director of the Utah attorney general's Secure Task Force, said about 95 percent of women in prostitution don't do it voluntarily. Because there is force, fraud or coercion involved, he said, they fall under the definition of human trafficking.

"Until we start taking a closer look at it and are really out looking for and trying to stop it, nothing is going to really change," he said.

Utah is no exception when it comes to sex trafficking, Smith said.

The Asian Association of Utah has helped about 500 victims since 2012 using grant money it received in partnership with the Utah Attorney General's Office, he said.