Experts Lisa Paul, deputy prosecuting attorney at the Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center, and Dusty Olson, an advocate of Providence’s Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse and co-founder of the Snohomish County Sexual Exploitation and Intervention Network, discuss the problem of sex trafficking of children in Snohomish County.
When many think of sex trafficking, they think of prostitutes in Southeast Asia, Nepal, Bangladesh or another faraway country – anywhere but here in the United States, and especially not of our own kids in our own communities.
But it is happening here.
About 100 from the community met for a discussion on the problem of sex trafficking of children in Snohomish County April 28 at Rosehill Community Center.
The League of Women Voters of Snohomish County sponsored the meeting, so that a panel of experts could discuss with the community the Everett-to-Tacoma prostitution circuit, law enforcement efforts and legal challenges, and what help these kids and teens need to recover as victims of sexual abuse.
“Sexual exploitation of children is a hideous problem – we all wish it didn’t happen but it does, and that’s a fact,” said the league’s Barbara Bush. “It’s happening internationally, it’s happening nationally, and it’s happening right here in Snohomish County.”
Child sex trafficking, aka domestic minor sex trafficking, is generally the sexual exploitation of 13- and 14-year-old girls – sometimes younger – who can’t legally consent to sex but are manipulated into having sex with adult men for another adult man’s profit.
Under federal law, the commercial sexual abuse of a minor is a Class B felony, punishable by a minimum of 27 months and up to 10 years in prison. The promoting of the commercial sexual abuse of a minor is a Class A felony, punishable by 7-10 years in prison.
That was not always the case, said Lisa Paul, deputy prosecuting attorney at the Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center.
In 2007, the law was changed from a Class C felony – the lowest of the felony offenses – and just 1-3 months in prison.
“Before the law changed, juvenile prostitution was considered less serious than theft of livestock,” she said. “So you could steal somebody’s cow, and it was considered more serious.”
Local law enforcement has seen prostitution in Snohomish County evolve in the last 5-7 years. Where there were once women in their 20s-40s “turning tricks” to support their drug addictions, there are now teenage girls working for their traffickers or “pimps.”
The scope of the problem is yet unknown. The pimps move their girls from Everett to Seattle to Tacoma, so there is a lot of overlapping of the sex-trafficking cases on record, said Dusty Olson, an advocate of Providence’s Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse.
She said the county had no way of tracking the movement of child victims until two years ago, and that it will be another year before it has any statistics.
“We’re talking about a lot of kids, but I can’t tell you what a lot is,” Olson said. “We don’t know yet.”
However, Olson said it is estimated that 300-500 kids a year are trafficked in Seattle. And with the overlap of victims, she said the numbers in Snohomish County couldn’t be too far off.
The FBI’s Pacific Northwest Innocence Lost Task Force and the Snohomish County Sexual Exploitation and Intervention Network are working to address the local sex-trafficking problem.
“First and foremost, our goal is to rescue them and get them in a safe house and get them out of that lifestyle and, secondly, go after that trafficker and seek a federal sentence,” said Everett Police Department Detective Tim Morgan, a member of the task force.
The challenge of solving child sex-trafficking cases in Snohomish County is that they are never reported. The pimp brainwashes the girls into thinking that law enforcement is the enemy.
If they do go to the police, it’s for domestic assault, and they won’t say the actual problem is prostitution.
Therefore, both the task force and the network are working to train themselves and the community to recognize the signs of children who are at-risk of becoming victims or already are victims of commercial sexual exploitation – and where to send them for help.
“I’ve seen victims with families of single moms, I’ve seen it with single dads, and I’ve seen it with middle class families that seem to have a normal life,” said Olson, co-founder of the network.
Risk factors include a history of sexual abuse, runaways, foster care, crime, poverty and a lack of education and job opportunities.
“People look at that and say, ‘That’s not our community’ or ‘That’s not my kid’ or ‘That’s not my neighborhood,’ but the other risk factors involved are pretty universal to kids,” Olson said.
Kids who go to school or other places by themselves, have access to a computer, want money and consumer goods, desire a romantic relationship, want more independence from their parents, test boundaries and take risks are also vulnerable to child sex trafficking.
The red flags include:
• A younger girl in a relationship with a much older boyfriend
• Money, cell phones, designer clothes, manicures, etc. without an explanation of how they were paid for.
• Change in appearance, including hair, clothing, nails – and sometimes even a changed name.
• Kids who are staying in hotels or traveling a lot without an explanation.
• Visible signs of abuse or specific tattoos.
“These are the things that need to be followed up on and need to be talked about,” Olson said. “Questions need to be asked.”
The task force and network are also working to adapt and coordinate the services available in the community to help the victims, who respond to sexual trauma similarly but not exactly like victims of sexual assault.
The children are difficult to work with because the trafficker has trained them to be difficult, to lie and to mistrust the police and service providers.
They go back and forth from feeling anxious and agitated to completely disconnected from the world.
There is also an incredibly strong psychological bond between the girl and the pimp that proves almost impossible to break.
“They have lost all sense of themselves, and so they completely identify with the pimp’s perspective and don’t know how to function without that individual,” Olson said.
“When we come and say we want you to make your own decisions and be empowered, they don’t know what to do with that. That is scary.”
Progress is slow for the task force and network, but it is still progress, Morgan said. He said they consider it a success if they are able to get a victim to stay in her designated safe house – away from the pimp – for more than a day.
“As far as longer successes, we haven’t gotten to that point,” he said. “We have to celebrate tiny successes or we won’t be doing this for very long.”