downtown Chandler

People support the rescue and recovery of sex-trafficking victims gathered in downtown Chandler last month for a rally aimed at increasing public awareness of the problem throughout the East Valley.

A nonprofit aimed at helping adult sex-trafficking victims get back on their feet set up an office in downtown Gilbert.

CeCe’s Hope Center’s resources include call-lines, case management and mentorship and focuses on women, 18-24, who aged out or are about to age out of the foster care or justice system, as well as those recently rescued by law enforcement. 

“We looked at the data between Chandler, Mesa and Gilbert and it looks like sex trafficking especially online versions of this is pretty prevalent with all three communities.,” said Gilbert Councilman Eddie Cook, who serves on CeCe’s board of directors. Adding:

“I know if you were to chat with the police departments of all three, they will give you data and show you it is becoming more and more of an increase in this particular unfortunate kind of issue.”

Lea Benson, CeCe’s CEO, began the legwork on forming the East Valley nonprofit while she headed StreetLight USA, which provides housing and resources for girls 11-17 years old who have been victimized by sex-trafficking.

StreetLight took root in 2008, in the West Valley and since helped over 1,000 girls.

“Before leaving StreetLight, I saw the need for aftercare for kids after 18, aged out of the system,” said Benson, who tracked some of the girls who left StreetLight. 

“They needed more support, they weren’t ready,” she explained. “Trauma can take years and years to overcome (but) once they turn 18, there’s no more support system for them and fewer services available for those over 18.”

Benson said three years ago, she approached Chandler Councilman Rene Lopez, who was involved with StreetLight at the time, about setting up the Center and he readily agreed to help. Lopez, in turn, worked with Cook and Mesa City Councilman Kevin Thompson, also a board member, to bring CeCe’s to fruition.

“While they are under 18, they are the ward of the state and have a lot of resources,” said Lopez, the board’s chairman. “But when they turn 18, 80 to 90 percent (of the resources) drop off.”

Lopez said the center is currently helping 10 women and stabilized four who have found housing and steady jobs.

Lopez also noted another reason for starting a program in the East Valley.

“About 80 percent of the overall donations (to StreetLight) were from the East Valley,” he said. “And about 90 percent of volunteer hours from churches were from the East Valley.”

Lopez said it took about a year to get the foundation going and then almost two years before CeCe’s was ready to take in participants. 

“We help them with case management and what resources are available to them immediately so they can work toward stabilization,” he said. “And we pair them with a mentor who’s non-judgmental – a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen. All of the mentors have gone through trauma themselves so a lot of them are survivors, most from sex trafficking.”

The center also teaches the women life skills, such as how to balance a checkbook, how to put together a resume and how to get a job.

Gilbert Police said there were no “official” sex-trafficking cases investigated in the town for 2019.

But from 2014-17, there were 26 human-trafficking arrests in Gilbert while Mesa reported 144 and Chandler 21 for this time period, according to police.

And, during the fall of 2018, Mesa Police Department partnered with Tempe, Gilbert and Chandler Police departments as well as the Attorney General’s Office, in an undercover operation resulting in the arrest of 24 suspects, ranging in age from 21 to 80 years old. 

Det. Natalie Nohr with Mesa Police’s Human Exploitation and Trafficking or HEaT Squad, said the unit handles on average four cases a month, split evenly between children and adult victims.

“We work with several other agencies in handling those types of investigations,” she said, adding cases have increased due to more awareness of sex trafficking. 

Survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and abuse, and human trafficking ranked No. 2 among 10 groups in Gilbert found to be in need of human services such as mental health counseling and housing, according to a 2019 Community Needs Assessment commissioned by Gilbert. 

“This serious stand-alone group is in need of immediate attention in Gilbert,” the report stated.

The report’s consultant in December told Town Council human trafficking cases were growing in the East Valley with the majority occurring online and through phone apps.

It recommended Gilbert take the reins to pro-actively combat it.

 Benson said the center this year is focusing on raising money to provide temporary housing, three to six months, for the women until they are able to make it on their own.

“We’d love to be able to own one but for now we’ll start by leasing a facility until we raise the money to purchase one or someone donates one for us,” she said, adding: 

“Everybody wants to help kids but they don’t realize when it comes to trafficking, the mental state of many (adult victims) are they are still a kid, still in the trauma state. So, they need a lot of support to maintain and stabilize. I started CeCe’s in the East Valley as a continuation of support based on all the things I’ve learned in the last 10 years in StreetLight.”