ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Bernalillo County is looking to spend up to $1 million on a new housing project aimed at helping vulnerable teenagers who are victims of sex trafficking.
Today, there’s no special place in Albuquerque or the rest of New Mexico where underage sex trafficked victims can stay. Advocates say that makes treating the victims in these cases extremely tough.
The hope now is to create a specialized facility in Albuquerque, which sees the bulk of the state’s underage sex trafficking cases.
“The issue of sex trafficking of minors is something that everybody is grappling with and trying to understand,” said Bryce Pittenger, director of the Behavioral Health Services division of the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department.
In 2019 alone, CYFD has counted at least 40 cases in New Mexico of minors being trafficked for sex. Pittenger’s division works with many of the victims.
“It’s unique what (victims) go through, the conditioning, the grooming, the control,” said Pittenger.
For years, one of the biggest barriers toward helping those victims, Pittenger says, has been finding a safe place for victims to stay.
“Up until this point, New Mexico has not had a safe home for sex trafficking youth,” said Pittenger. “We need a special place for them to be able to go to, to be treated with respect, to have their needs met, so they can learn to trust us.”
In a recent meeting, Bernalillo County Commissioners recently approved the use of up to $1 million to be spent on a safe housing complex for sex-trafficked youth. The plan calls for either a remodel an existing building, or construction of a new one from scratch, somewhere in Albuquerque.
“This is a sliver of really good news,” said Kyle Hartsock, a special investigator for the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office.
Today, Hartsock works with prosecutors who are taking human trafficking cases through the court system. Before that, Hartsock helped start the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office’s special “GHOST Unit,” which specializes in stopping sex trafficking cases.
Typically, victims in the case are between 12 and 18 years old and prone to run away.
“You have to build trust,” said Hartsock. “These are kids that, (by and large), adults and their peers have broken their trust for the entire span of their lives.”
Hartsock says special housing is needed more than ever now.
“Human trafficking kids are different than the other kids,” said Hartsock. “(If they’re not helped) we’ll lose them, you won’t get them to testify, they will likely go back and get trafficked again.”
The county is just beginning the process of looking into what it will take to open the newly planned shelter. So far, there’s no location on where it might go, or when. CYFD says it will pay the cost to run the shelter once it’s built.
The money to build the complex is coming from the county’s Behavioral Health fund, which comes from a one-eighth-cent gross receipts tax increase commissioners implemented in 2015, after voters supported the idea through a non-binding polling question about the tax on a 2014 ballot.