According to Merikay Jost, there was nearly a 100 percent chance that a sex trafficking transaction was happening at a local hotel on the same evening she and Maricela Artalejo, with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, gave a presentation to the Boise branch of the American Association of University Women.
Each month, the Boise AAUW chapter hosts speakers on topics ranging from refugee resettlement to the Idaho Food Bank. On Feb. 11, the topic was human trafficking and the audience in the banquet room of Boise's Twin Dragon restaurant sat in stunned silence as they listened.
"We're pulling the wool over our eyes," Jost told the crowd. "We're not addressing what is happening here."
She noted the different kinds of human trafficking that regularly take place in the Gem State: labor trafficking, organ trafficking and domestic minor sex trafficking, in which children are sold for sex by guardians in their own homes.
One of the biggest problems in Idaho, according to Jost, is the state's inability to handle sex trafficking cases. Jost said she only knows of two detectives in Idaho who know how to handle these cases, and the state is greatly under-equipped to protect these victims.
"There are over 3,000 animal shelters in the United States but less than 300 beds for sex trafficking victims that are children," Jost said, drawing gasps from the audience.
Jost said there was really nowhere for the children—mostly girls—to go once they're rescued. They can't go to shelters for women and children unless accompanied by an adult, and foster care isn't always an appropriate option because many of the girls are runaways from foster homes. Jost said it's these issues that often prevent law enforcement and prosecutors from taking on human trafficking cases.
"If we have law enforcement go and find these victims, we're going to be in so far over our heads," Jost said. "We have nowhere to put them."
Even finding victims of human trafficking can be extremely difficult because they don't come forward, Jost explained. She said victims are "brainwashed" by pimps to distrust law enforcement and made to feel scared for their safety should they try to get away.
Jost kept pointing out to the Boise AAUW group that sex trafficking was indeed happening in this community, not just in Los Angeles or New York. In fact, she said, Boise is part of a circuit that includes cities throughout the West. Boise Weekly has followed several local sex trafficking cases, including the 2014 arrest and sentencing of Derrick Hicklen and Gypsie Akers, who ran a prostitution ring out of hotels near the Boise Airport.
Those selling sex and those buying it are treated much differently. Prostitutes are usually arrested, johns usually are not.
"Who is the typical john today?" asked Jost. "He's male, 28-64 years old, married with children, from all walks of life, usually non-violent. Regular men with regular jobs. They are our husbands, our brothers, our uncles, our fathers, the guy at the pulpit, the guy in the legislature, the guy in the police department. No one is slapping their hands."
Jost said she hoped that the community-minded group would support legislation that protects trafficking victims and help raise awareness of the issue.
"I talk to at least 1,000 people every year on this topic," Jost told BW. "It's only in the last three years that audiences even have an inkling of what I'm talking about."