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Q&A w/Kelly Dore | ‘I have always fought for the underdog’

Author: Dan Njegomir - May 21, 2018 - Updated: May 31, 2018

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Anti-human trafficking activist Kelly Dore, with husband and political veteran Tim Dore, on a trip to Ireland. (Photo courtesy Kelly Dore)

Regular Colorado Politics readers will remember Kelly Dore from our April 27 cover story about the state’s crackdown on human trafficking. She has been a central figure in that saga; not only is the married mom of four from Parker a leading voice in the crusade against trafficking, but she also was one of its victims for much of her own childhood. Her  story, told movingly by our reporter Marianne Goodland, is devastating.

Today, as director of the National Human Trafficking Survivor Coalition, Dore is a fierce policy advocate for children traumatized by trafficking, and a force to be reckoned with in Colorado politics in general. Among other things, she is a former Elbert County commissioner who made news in 2016 by resigning her post rather than going along with policies and procedures she felt needed to be called out. As she puts it in today’s Q&A, “…the rest of the officials and many of the party people, wanted me to remain silent.”

She also is one-half of a political household: She’s married to Republican former state Rep. Tim Dore, a longtime Capitol presence and seasoned political insider. It’s a status that comes with challenges that go beyond politics per se. Notably, its impact on family life. She offers in-depth perspective on some of the personal pressures of wall-to-wall politics.

Knowing what she now knows, would she want to see her own children go into politics someday? For the answer to that — and a lot more — read on.

Colorado Politics: You are a leading advocate for a crackdown on human trafficking; you also are the face and voice of its victims because you were one of them. Your personal saga, as recounted recently in Colorado Politics, is unspeakably harrowing and heartbreaking. On one level, it makes sense you would be inspired to fight back now as an adult — to protect others from what you went through as a child.

And yet sharing your life with the whole world must have been extraordinarily difficult. How did you finally resolve to come forward, tell your story and become an activist?

Kelly Dore: I have always fought for the underdog, as long as there was oppression, and this is no different. I think that is what happens when you experience trauma; it gives you unique empathy and compassion for understanding those who are broken.  I was also taught that you can never judge a person without walking in their shoes and the plight of those who are enslaved due to a number of forms of human trafficking around the world deserve to have a voice, even if they cannot speak themselves.

I do not believe that this is a political issue but a human rights issue, and chances are you know someone who has been trafficked or abused, so it affects all of us. When I was a high school freshman, I sat before a courtroom with all of the details of my abuse exposed for everyone to see. With that vulnerability, there is fear of what will happen.

My trafficker pled guilty to 19 of 27 counts against him but only served a few months in jail and was able to continue on his life.  The judge in the case, who is now a Colorado Supreme Court judge, did not even look at me when my turn to speak at sentencing was and shuffled through papers as if I was another case.  I was a living being who had experienced horrific events, and I deserved to at least be met with eye contact.  I do not believe that judge understood the trauma and life-changing pain I had endured, and I do not believe they cared.  I decided to go to college and become a social worker so I could at least advocate for child victims and work to ensure that their voices were heard on all levels.

As a counselor and then a (county) commissioner, I had the opportunity to see things from the other side and in some cases, I was horrified at the lack of trauma-informed care that some of the government agencies had and lack of empathy that was provided towards people who have gone through unspeakable events.  I was appointed to sit on different boards and commissions that dealt with survivors and realized how little survivor input was being used when making legislation about us. In fact, in many cases I was the only survivor at the table and no one knew it.

I did not run for office as a human-trafficking survivor because I wanted to be elected for my vision and ideas, not because people felt sorry for me. However, at certain times, the little I did share, was also used against me by constituents or other officials who were looking for a weakness.  I am a firm believer that my story is my story and it should be protected. However, sometimes details are necessary to convey the importance of the survivor mind or survivor-based legislation.

 


Kelly Dore

  • Founder and executive director of the National Human Trafficking Survivor Coalition.
  • Former Elbert County commissioner.
  • Lives in Elizabeth with her four children and her husband, Republican former state Rep. Tim Dore.

 

CP: Earlier this year, the legislature declined to enact a key reform in the fight against trafficking — a bill that would have ensured that underage victims of trafficking who were forced into the sex trade aren’t charged with prostitution. As you noted recently in a commentary in Colorado Politics, “Effectively, there is no such thing as a child prostitute.” Why was there opposition to this measure?

Dore: The federal government has said there is “No Such Thing as a Child Prostitute” in the 2000 TVPA act as well as in many other laws it has passed.  Unfortunately, many states are able to find loopholes in this and sometimes because they do not have the protocols in place to protect minors that they deem are in danger.

The opposition came from the District Attorney’s Council, which was some of the DAs and law enforcement who feared unintended consequences of not being able to charge minors with prostitution for their protection.  In some judicial districts in Colorado, minors are still charged with prostitution or other non-violent crimes as a result of being trafficked.  Many minors are brainwashed to believe that law enforcement is not on their side, and in some cases, their buyers are law enforcement, so the reasoning for distrust is factual.  Pimps and traffickers will spend sometimes into the hundreds of thousands of dollars to groom a victim and will do everything in their power to keep them. This means telling them that law enforcement is out to harm them more.

In Colorado, we do not have dedicated funding for emergency placement centers for minor victims and, in many cases, jail is the only option law enforcement has to keep them safe.  This can often cause a feeling of coercion, which is similar to what their trafficker did, for charges to not be filed in exchange for testimony against the pimp. Fear and distrust is a huge barrier to collaboration with minors, and this is something that Senate Bill 84 exposed.

I am happy to say that the DAs, law enforcement, survivors and key organizations have agreed to meet over the summer to discuss this problem. Senate Bill 84 was really a symptom of a greater issue in Colorado and that is comprehensive and collaborative care for minor victims.  I believe Colorado can and will do better, but we all need to be at the table to discuss a pathway, which includes greater prosecution for the buyers of children. Without them, there is no demand for children for sex.

CP: What other pieces of public policy need to be put in place — in Colorado and across the nation — to curb human trafficking?

Dore: We are behind on providing complex trauma-informed care for minor victims, honestly, all victims of human trafficking.  We seem to always be about five steps behind the traffickers, and it will take a large collaborative effort to really get down to the necessities to fight this scourge:

  • Lack of collaboration, organizations that try to do it all and not stay within their expertise, this seems to be a very turf-oriented field, and many organizations try to dominate all areas.
  • Lack of funding — there is $12 billion in the federal Victims Assistance Fund, but only a small portion is actually delegated to organizations. The majority of the money actually never sees the victims in restitution.
  • Lack of beds — there are approximately 548 beds in human trafficking safe houses in the U.S. There are only eight for boys, who make up almost 45 percent of victims, and the FBI estimates that over 13,000 are needed at any given time.
  • The need to discuss our foster care system and to identify familial trafficking, which is the hidden issue in America.
  • The lack of training in public schools and medical professionals to identify questionable abuse.
  • The lack of awareness and education with the public as to what it looks like. A 2016 University of Virginia study identified human trafficking in every single public high school in their state. They concluded with the fact that most U.S. high schools have a level of it or the exposure to it that is not being discussed.
  • The lack of consistent laws across state and federal lines.
  • The lack of a crackdown on buyer of children for sex; we shame the victims, but not the buyers.
  • The reactionary model to which government funds programs instead of a prevention-based model
  • The breakdown of society and lack of empathy for other human beings.

CP: Two years into a four-year term as an Elbert County commissioner, you decided to step down in 2016. What may have seemed at first like an endeavor in grassroots, small-town, Main Street democracy turned out to be anything but. In a statement at the time of your resignation, you cited among other things, “two board members who seem content with fighting each other on an ideology and not working for the good of the people.” Did that experience sour you on local government?

Dore: I was instilled with the belief that if you can serve, that you should, it does not matter the capacity.  I believe it is a civic duty of all Americans to serve other human beings in some capacity as we are stewards of each other.  Sometimes doing the right thing leaves you standing alone and that is the responsibility bestowed upon you when you take the oath of office.  In my two years, I worked hard to legitimately represent the county on many levels, but I saw many challenges and ethical choices made by others that I could not stand by.

I believe that the best politicians are those who can be statesmen and not driven by a personal belief system that is self-serving; that was not the case with some of the people around me and when I questioned it, many people saw it, but did not want to “rock the boat” or show the vulnerabilities inside our own party.

I loved serving the constituents and put a lot of time and my own finances into doing so, but I was never able to break through the proverbial “good ole boys club” and even though the ethical choices of one commissioner cost the taxpayers money (along with) poor choices by a county manager and attorney, which was eventually brought to light, the rest of the officials and many of the party people, wanted me to remain silent.  It became an “us against them mentality” and I found that I was not able to perform my duties fully as a commissioner.

They did not elect me to do that, to not see a full budget or to not make hard decisions, however, when I did, I was accused of colluding with people who were not in our political party and I have learned that once people resort to name calling, they have effectively lost their argument and sometimes the higher road is to move on.  I would ask commissioners in other counties about the practices I was seeing and they all said it was not correct, (but) when I would question it, it was “this is how we always do things.”

I believe in working for a paycheck and when I found that I was basically getting paid to do nothing because of the infighting which was going on long before I was sworn in, I decided to walk away.  The truth always comes out and sometimes it is not when we want it to.  While I regret not being able to make the changes necessary in the county, I am happy to see that many of the ideas and visions I had put forth are being accomplished today. They may not have been done had I still been there.

CP: Political news maven Lynn Bartels, now an aide to Secretary of State Wayne Williams, once likened you and husband Tim Dore, a Republican former state representative, to some of the other political power couples in the state. Yet, with the esteem comes a lot of stress, not to mention time constraints — especially for a household like yours with four children at home. How did you juggle the pressures of being two parents who sought and held public office with the needs of your family? Any pointers you’d offer to help aspiring office seekers balance politics and family?

Dore: First, Lynn is one of the most amazing people I am blessed to know.

As a politician, you have to make decisions that are best for all of your constituents, not just some, you have to look at the big picture and sometimes constituents formulate opinions based on their belief system, without even discussing your votes with you.  It does not help that we live in an age where people can hide behind a screen and sling false accusations without being held accountable and people will believe what they read or hear.

When my husband first ran for office, long before I decided to, I asked him to make me a promise that we would be true to our faith first over being anything else, and if at any point, we felt we were losing our soul then we would walk away. I think many politicians are feeling that way now and it is especially hard to hold dual elected positions because people feel that nothing is off limits.  The loss of respect and the fears that people have are sometimes fueled by misinformation and that can be unfair to any politician.

I think this past year, has been a blessing for both of us to reconnect and to be parents again.  People do not realize the sacrifices you make to be a representative for them and the personal cost to your family. …  Our children were able to see the good and bad sides of being in politics, and it is a small fraternity and sorority of people who understand the pressure and stress. While we were able to juggle life’s business and the lives of our children, they made sacrifices to in the fact that sometimes their parents missed their activities.

It can also be hard on a marriage because people attack your spouse and sometime will communicate with you, what they do not have the ability to ask them. Honestly, I think that people should wait until their families are older and decide if (they) have the ability to juggle it all. It takes a lot of faith and communication and you have to have each other’s backs.

I believe this challenge blessed Tim and me in many ways and it also presented obstacles that we had to choose to work together through. I have absolutely no regrets about serving citizens. Would I make different decisions in some areas? Probably, which would be to always put my husband and children’s interests first. If you can do that, you will be happy in office.

The one takeaway I have is that you will never hear me publicly bashing another female politician personally or engaging in hate-fueled conversations. I have so much respect for any woman who chooses to run for office because your life is not off limits, and we can be each other’s worst enemies. We do not have to agree with each other, but we should always be civil.

CP: You and Tim are Republicans, yet a lot of the political push-back each of you encounter came not from Democrats but from within your own party ranks. What is the biggest challenge facing Republicans as a party in Colorado, and what do you think it’ll take for the GOP to recapture the governor’s office?

Dore: I struggle to identify with any party in Colorado at times, and I think the Republican Party is going through a growing phase right now and some of that comes at the caucus level, which is led by agenda and not always policy that resonates with the average voter.  With independents making up the largest number of voters in Colorado, many of whom are fed up with the partisanship and antics of both parties, you need a comprehensive plan that is representative of all Coloradoans.

I have seen good ideas emerge from both parties, yet they are quashed by ideology and people who believe that it is more important to be politicians.  I do not see how that works in a purple state such as Colorado, and if you lose the ability to see all sides and issues with rational thought and conversation, you will lose good, smart people who are serving as well.  People in Colorado tend to stay away from extremist views and if a candidate appears to not want to work across the aisle at all, they will vote for the person they think will, on a statewide basis.

The candidate who raises the most money, will be the next governor as most voters do not pay attention until a few weeks before elections, they vote based on commercials, positive and mostly negative ads.  I think the Republican party in Colorado will need to unite and focus on the candidate who has the best chances to take Independent votes as well.

CP: Would you want any of your children to go into politics?

Dore: Of all the things in my life that I am most proud of, it is the individuals that each of my four children are growing up to be.  Tim and I have truly been blessed in our partnership and compliment each other well as parents, I am thankful to have a man who wants to be a father and is an incredible role model for our 3 sons and daughter.  Currently, they are 17, 15, 13 and 10, so their biggest concern is getting through school for summer.  All of them have the ability to be incredible leaders and we encourage them to find what they love because work will be so much more rewarding.

As a mother, I am cherishing every moment with them now and do not know where their lives will take them, but as long as they are happy, compassionate and walking lives that they are proud of, I will stand with them if they choose politics or any other area they want to serve.  I tell them all the time that it is not about the successful people they encounter in life; they are not defined by words, but actions, and how they walk with the broken and most vulnerable in this world.

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is the opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.