DENVER (AP) — The founders of an organization that helps teen girls who are rescued from prostitution received a community leadership award on Tuesday from the FBI's Denver division.
Special Agent in Charge Thomas Ravenelle thanked Michelle and Jason Korth of Colorado Springs for their dedication and creativity for distributing "restoration bags" full of new clothes, toiletries and food to teen victims of human trafficking as well as offering counseling and shelter to rescued girls.
The bags are distributed through law enforcement agencies in more than 30 states, most extensively in Colorado, Wyoming, Illinois, New York, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin. The group also offers housing and counseling to about a dozen young women in Colorado Springs who have completed treatment programs for their previous abuse.
The Korths, both in their 30s, founded the group in 2010 after learning that trafficking was a problem within the United States. Michelle Korth, who worked as a teacher before launching the group, said the victims they help, often runaways, frequently have suffered years of sexual and physical abuse before being manipulated into prostitution.
"It's the worst of the worst crime," she said.
They came up with the idea for the bags after hearing about how police officers would often spend their own money to buy items to help trafficked girls. It's a way to both meet some practical needs and also help law enforcement show the girls that they're not being treated as criminals, Jason Korth said.
The housing and counseling is aimed at helping those over 18 adjust to normal life and includes training on managing money and writing a resume. The counseling is Christian-based, but Jason Korth said they don't impose their faith on the women they work with.
"We want to show them that there are people who love them out there and a God that loves them," he said.
The FBI's Rocky Mountain Innocence Lost Task Force and local police departments are on track to recover over 60 trafficked teens in Colorado and Wyoming this year, up from 49 last year. One of the latest cases led to the prosecution of Robert Felix Gonzales, 39, of Broomfield who is accused of prostituting a teenage runaway for nearly two years in exchange for money and methamphetamine.
Investigators say teens are mostly sold for sex online, not on the street. Most of their work is done by following up on tips from worried family members, teachers and nurses, rather than traditional stings where the prostitution is taking place. The girls are often reluctant to talk about their experience and to implicate their pimps, making it difficult for investigators to build a case against the pimps.
Special Agent Ricky V. Wright said teens don't always recognize the danger they are in and investigators don't want to inflict more trauma on them by making them talk about what they've been through.
"Our primary goal is to get the child out," he said.
Both he and fellow task force member Sgt. Daniel Steele of the Denver police department, acknowledge that sometimes girls they rescue end up going back to pimps because that's what they know.