Investigative Journalist Uncovers Crime on Streets With Little Prosecution
“Kids are openly trafficked online and on city streets in Portland and Seattle and some end up selling sex into adulthood,” according to Washington and Oregon prosecutors. While sex trafficking is on the rise, arrests and convictions are not. It’s a complicated, disturbing story.
“Sex trafficking victims are groomed, gaslighted, manipulated and threatened not to report their victimization,” prosecutors say, thwarting efforts to hold traffickers responsible and protect trafficking victims from further harm.
As a result, “trafficking convictions in Washington and Oregon have remained low. From 2014 to 2022, the number of people convicted of sex trafficking crimes across both states fell 21 percent, dropping from 66 people to 52,” reports InvestigateWest, an independent Northwest news outlet that analyzed state and federal court data.
The Oregon Capital Chronicle posted a story about InvestigateWest’s findings headlined with, “Sex traffickers evade justice as child victims openly walk Pacific Northwest streets”. The story includes interviews with victims and how they became ensnared in the web of sex trafficking.
Northwest Sex Trafficking
“Located along the Interstate 5 corridor, a major highway running from Mexico to Canada that links many West Coast cities, Washington and Oregon are recognized as hubs within a national and global sex trafficking circuit,” wrote Kelsey Turner of InvestigateWest and a former reporter for The Columbian in Vancouver.
“State legislators across the region have tried to crack down on trafficking in recent years, and Washington has some of the toughest laws against sex trafficking in the country,” Turner reported. “Despite these efforts, the percentage of nationwide human trafficking cases that occur in Washington and Oregon has risen since 2017, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, a 24/7 phone line that maintains one of the nation’s most extensive human trafficking data sets.”
Turner interviewed Portland Police Bureau Sergeant Kristi Butcher who said, ““We’re getting reports frequently, weekly, that there are children out there walking ‘the Blade,’” an area in Northeast Portland with high rates of sex trafficking. “We need to get serious about our conversations of what this really is, and start listening to survivors and coming up with real solutions. Because the way that it’s working right now – it’s not working.”
“Poverty is a leading cause of trafficking worldwide, and girls of color and gender-diverse youth are especially vulnerable, studies show,” Turner reported.
Shift in Prosecution Focus
Policing sex-related crime has shifted over recent years away from criminalizing prostitution between consenting adults while treating children involved in the sex trade as victims who are unable to consent to sexual activity. For minors, the burden is on them to out their groomers and handlers for prosecution. Sex trafficking survivors say the burden to testify against traffickers puts them at risk, so they are reluctant to testify.
Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protect Act in 2000 that strengthened the ability to prosecute traffickers. Washington made sex trafficking a crime in 2003 and Oregon followed suit in 2007. The laws didn’t take into account the leverage traffickers have on their victims to deny being trafficked. Law enforcement has the disadvantage of not having many safe places or appropriate shelters for trafficking victims to go.
“Though law enforcement, prosecutors and survivors agree the solution is not to criminalize victims, many recognize that – if the end goal is to reduce trafficking – the current system is not working,” Turner reported.
The number of Oregon trafficking victims identified via the National Human Trafficking Hotline has been doubled from 64 to 160 between 2015 and 2021. There also has been a sharp increase in Washington from 194 to 337 victims. Both are much higher than the national average.
“We need to get serious about our conversations of what this really is, and start listening to survivors and coming up with real solutions.”
The Challenge in Helping Victims
Turner reported on an interaction in Portland last year as described by Butcher. “The Human Trafficking Unit attempted to remove a teenager from a trafficking situation. With assistance from the FBI, the unit found the girl in a Portland hotel room in the middle of the night with several adult men. The unit contacted the Oregon Department of Human Services’ on-call staff to pick her up and bring her to a safe place to stay. Before Butcher even left the scene, she got a call: The girl had run out of the department’s car at a stoplight only a few blocks from the hotel. All the time and effort put into recovering her was gone in just 10 minutes.
“It’s super deflating,” Butcher told Turner. “I’m all for not criminally penalizing these young women, but we need to have some leverage to kind of force them into treatment.”
Seattle Police says victims are mostly adult women and underage children. Turner cites a study in King County, where Seattle is located, identifying 473 “commercially sexually exploited children” in 2019, nearly double the number in 2008. At the same time, cases of commercial sexual abuse of a minor” in King County dropped from 39 in 2014 to one case in 2021 and no cases in 2022.
The cases that are prosecuted in Seattle and Portland, Turner reported, involve sex buyers rather sex sellers or traffickers. Most of the money paid for sex lands in the pockets of traffickers who elude prosecution.
(Turner’s story also was posted on OPB at https://www.opb.org/article/2023/12/04/pacific-northwest-sex-trafficking/)