JFSA women get update on sex trafficking

(L-R) Event co-chair Tamar Bergantino, Aimee Graves of CODAC, event co-chair Robyn Kessler and Beth Jacobs of Willow Way at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Women’s Philanthropy annual welcome Oct. 14. (Danielle Larcom/JFSA)

Around 60 women gathered in the Tucson Jewish Community Center sculpture garden at 7 p.m. on Oct. 14 as the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Women’s Philanthropy installed its new board. The evening served as an update on the issue of sex trafficking, a subject discussed at last year’s annual welcome.

“Last year we all heard a lot about the Super Bowl and the sex trafficking that was expected to come to our state because of that,” said Aimee Graves, vice president of resource development for CODAC Health, Recovery and Wellness, Inc., one of the evening’s two guest speakers.

Graves introduced a newly formed task force called the Southern Arizona Anti-Trafficking Unified Response Network, or SAATURN, which is working to involve the general public in helping the victims of sex trafficking. SAATURN is a coalition of about 33 organizations and currently has three working subcommittees that center around law enforcement/prosecution, training/outreach and victim services.

“We have a public defender in the audience tonight and she has told me that she knows, for sure, that some of the kids that she works with at Pima County Juvenile Court have certainly been trafficked,” said Graves. She and her colleagues at CODAC have also worked with children and adults who have been trafficked.

The evening concluded with a compelling story from sex trafficking survivor Beth Jacobs, who was a victim in the Midwest and is now a social worker in Tucson.

“You can’t run away, you don’t have an opportunity to run away,” Jacobs said of her ordeal.

Jacobs was trafficked across various states for six years, starting at the age of 16. In attempts to involve the police, she found herself being beaten by a pimp until she thought she was going to die. At the age of 22, Jacobs finally saw an opportunity to escape the awful situation, but her struggle did not stop once she was no longer being trafficked.

“For four months I stayed in a hotel doing nothing,” said Jacobs. “I didn’t know what the unemployment office was. I didn’t know how to get I.D.”

An agency providing emotional support groups in Minnesota helped her get back on her feet, but when she moved to Tucson, Jacobs found that there were no agencies that worked specifically with sex trafficking victims. In response, she started Willow Way, an organization that offers support groups and case management aid as well as other victim services.

Jacobs is currently working to change Arizona’s legislation in hopes of helping more victims. In the state of Arizona, Jacobs said, she is considered a criminal “for 99 years, which is a life sentence. So, when I’m 115 years old, I don’t have to disclose that I was trafficked when I’m looking for a job.”

With help from attorneys in Los Angeles, Jacobs drafted a vacating bill that would allow a victim to vacate charges if they meet certain criteria. Right now only a small population of victims can vacate charges. Jacobs is still fighting for her bill, however.

JFSA Women’s Philanthropy will continue to raise awareness on the issue of sex trafficking and members are working on plans to host another event with Willow Way in early 2016.

“We, as Jewish women and caring members of our community, and just human beings,” said Tamar Bergantino, one of the event chairs, “we can’t ignore the pain and suffering that exists.”