Sex trafficking traps Portland teens

An effective strategy effort must be marshaled to address the problem

This being Portland, if you spotlight a shocking problem, like the sexual trafficking of teenagers, and don’t allow the community to look away, eventually you’ll galvanize people. Portlanders will shed their “can’t happen here” mentality and rally round.

But once you have their attention, the question turns to harnessing their energy. We don’t just need a lot of people upset about trafficking of young people. We need an effective strategy to combat the problem.

This is an important question for Police Chief Mike Reese to answer. We got to thinking about this last week, after Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., went on a ride-along with the Portland police. There’s been a lot of publicity of late about how Portland may be one of the top-ranked cities in the nation for underage prostitution. And Wyden, in a sense, was standing in for the rest of the community on a recent weekend, when he took a look for himself.

To be sure, Wyden has been working on the issue for months. He’s pushing legislation to help Portland and other cities provide safe houses for prostitutes, where they can be separated from their pimps. Yet even though the senator was well aware of the problem, the ride-along came as a shock.

It’s one thing to see photos of 13-, 14- and 15-year-old girls on X-rated websites. Or to hear how Portland police are encountering these girls, all dolled-up and walking on 82nd Avenue late at night.

It’s another thing to see a 15-year-old at 11 p.m, looking for customers. The girl Wyden saw had a regulation kit of sorts ā€” a butcher knife, three condoms and a cell phone. As The Oregonian’s Allan Brettman reported last week, text messages on the phone linked the girl to someone believed to be her pimp.

“If there is even one youngster … out there like that 15-year-old girl I saw last night,” Wyden said, afterwards, “we’ve got to reach (her).”

Once young girls develop a bond with a pimp, however, it’s difficult to retrieve them. A police officer swooping in can make a difference, but only if he or she has the legal authority to help the girl and a safe place to lodge her, away from her pimp. Getting her to testify against him is another battle. If the girl is just returned “home” (often to foster care), she is almost certain to return to prostitution.

Strengthening state laws that allow young people to be taken into protective custody would help, says Sgt. Mike Geiger, in charge of the bureau’s sex crimes unit. Support services, counseling and housing are also needed.

Thus, nonprofits involved with runaways, deputy district attorneys, legislators, the FBI, Multnomah County, the state Department of Human Services, the Portland Police Bureau and other police agencies ā€” all have an important role to play in extricating young girls from sex traffickers. That’s why so many agencies are getting involved. Yet, ultimately, someone needs to take charge. Otherwise, the community’s energy could be wasted.

Geiger, by the way, isn’t sure that Portland is the No. 2 city in the country for teenage sexual trafficking, as has been claimed. “I’m not even sure that’s the issue,” he says. “Whether we’re No. 1 or No. 4 or No. 15, the question is: Do we have a problem? And the answer is that we absolutely do.”

By working with the state Department of Human Services, Geiger’s unit has identified 105 girls in the area, ages 12 to 17, who are likely involved in trafficking or at risk of it. (Once a girl has run away three or four times, she is very vulnerable.) The problem is serious, but solving it is not beyond our power.

As long as we don’t look away.


Published in: on August 17, 2010 at 6:46 am  Leave a Comment  
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