January 14, 2011

Prostitution of children in Seattle mushrooms, while Portland’s reputation suffers

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Child prostitution appears to be mushrooming in Seattle, even though its I-5 sister city to the south, Portland, is more notorious for child sex trafficking.

“What I see on the ground is the problem is getting worse,” said Leslie Briner, a social worker who is also associate director of residential services for The Bridge, a nine-bed residential treatment program for teen prostitutes that opened in Seattle last June.

“The age is trending down and the frequency is trending up,” she said. The average age teens get into prostitution is 13.

In the Northwest, however, it’s Portland that has captured the national imagination as a hub of child prostitution.

Former CBS newsman Dan Rather called Portland “Pornland,” a model city that’s becoming “a major center for child trafficking.” ABC’s World News and Nightline called Portland one of the largest hubs for child sex trafficking in America.

The child prostitution story in the Northwest is very much a tale of two cities. And Seattle has consistently shown the most juveniles rounded up in prostitution crackdowns for three years running now. Despite Portland’s notoriety for teen prostitution, InvestigateWest reporting shows that the problem there may not be any worse than most large cities, including Seattle.

On Thursday, advocates for a bigger push to halt teen prostitution took their case to Olympia, where legislation is expected to be filed soon. And on Friday hundreds will gather in Portland for the third-annual Northwest Conference Against Trafficking, with talks from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and actress Daryl Hannah.

Portland’s reputation as a major child sex trafficking locale stems from its inclusion on the U.S. Department of Justice’s list of the top 13 cities of concern when the U.S. Department of Justice first launched a national effort to combat child sex trafficking in 2003. Eight years later, however, with 40 such task forces throughout the country, Portland has one of the most aggressive child sex trafficking task forces in the nation, led by the FBI.

The sophistication and visibility of that effort, combined with FBI secrecy about the program, have led people to falsely conclude that Portland tops the nation in the number of children trafficked.

“I giggle at that every time I hear it, to be honest with you. Everybody wants a ranking, everybody wants a number,” said Keith Bickford, a deputy sheriff for Multnomah County who serves as director of the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force. “Is Oregon known across the nation as a place that we have a problem? Absolutely. Oregon has a large runaway youth population that fall prey to sex trafficking… Are we ranked somehow? No.”

Law enforcement and social services providers in Seattle echoed that position.

The Seattle area has recorded more teen youth involved in prostitution in the annual sweeps done by the FBI and local police departments than the Portland area.

In November 2010, for example, King and Pierce Counties had 23 of the 69 young people rescued nationwide during Operation Cross Country V.  Of those, 16 were in King Co., and seven in Pierce, said Assistant Special-Agent-in-Charge Steven Dean of the Seattle FBI office.

“We had the most for the third year in a row,” he said. “But it’s illogical to say it’s a bigger problem here. It means we’re addressing it better.”

He said police departments in King County and Pierce have been progressive about treating young prostitutes as victims, not criminals.

Still, the program appears to be growing, said Lt. Eric Sano of the Seattle Police Department. In 2007, Seattle recovered 20 juveniles involved in prostitution. Last year, it recovered 80, double the number the year before.

An often-quoted 2008 study by Debra Boyer for the City of Seattle estimated there were between 300 and 500 juvenile prostitutes working in King County. However, with internet trafficking of girls and boys, Sano said he thinks the numbers are higher today. “I think it’s more like 500 to 800 kids today.”

That growth is one reason Seattle recently opened a residential treatment program to help teen victims recover. The program, operated by YouthCare, is one of only about half a dozen such programs in the country, said Briner, who is consulting on developing a similar program in Portland.

The treatment can take anywhere from a few months to up to two years. With only nine slots, plus an additional two emergency beds at a local shelter, it can’t begin to address the needs Seattle police see on the street, Sano said:  “That’s nowhere near enough.”

Even with evidence child sex trafficking is on the rise, it’s still not possible to say Seattle or Portland leads the country.

It’s very difficult to compare cities because there’s no consistent methodology for measuring, said Briner. What’s indisputable, though, is that access to technology and increasing gang involvement are driving more young girls into “the life” in cities such as Portland and Seattle that attract young people.

Anyone can go on the Internet and learn how to “turn a girl out,” the term for inducing a girl to turn tricks. Teenage males are also victimized.

“You can now do everything you need to do to turn out and run a girl on an I-Phone,” Briner said. “You don’t even need a computer.”

That, plus the economic downturn, which traditionally drives vice industries, plus the glamorization of the lifestyle, has caused more and younger people to enter prostitution, she said.

Both Seattle and Portland have stepped up efforts to identify and address the problem in recent years.

In both cities, the law enforcement effort led by the FBI and local police agencies has dovetailed with efforts by the social service providers to create new programs. Lawmakers are also retooling policy and funds to support those efforts.

As they make gains, however, the attention they garner has spurred a maelstrom of bad information, poorly understood statistics and provoked, in some cases, knee-jerk political reaction to an issue that is especially nuanced.

As a flurry of bills head to the 2011 session of the Oregon Legislature to make laws, there is concern.

“We often see poor policies put in place, not only in reaction to sensational trends like this, but also when budgets are tight,” said Mark McKechnie, executive director of the Juvenile Rights Project, a legal project representing foster and delinquent children in Oregon.

Several ideas are being proposed in Oregon. They include giving police
power to arrest people who solicit sex from children without having to
prove they knew they were underage; and locking minor prostitutes in
detention for three days without hearings.

In Olympia, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles of Seattle is planning to file legislation, too. One bill would make it easier for child prostitution victims to get into long-term transitional housing, she said.

Another more controversial proposal that Kohl-Welles is prepared to endorse would make an exception to Washington’s two-party consent laws, giving police the ability to access a teen prostitute’s cell phone information with only the victim’s consent. Currently, the consent of the alleged pimp is also required, which makes it a moot investigative tool. Washington is one of only a handful of states that require the consent of both parties.

McKechnie compares the current rush of political activity to a similar, harried response to methamphetamine in 2005, an effort that met with mixed results.

“It seems there was a rush to do something and then later you realize the problem was overblown and some of the things put in place actually backfired,” he said. “A lot of times things that get put into place quickly are hard to undo.”

Questionable Fame

Asked about Portland’s recent media stardom as a national center for child prostitution, Evan Nicholas, an agent in the Crimes Against Children Unit at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the manager of its Innocence Lost project, the national network of task forces fighting child sex trafficking, responded decisively.

“Portland is not the hub of child prostitution,” he said.

Instead, he said Portland benefits from an aggressive team of FBI agents and local law enforcement officers who understand the problem of child sex trafficking and have spent eight years learning how to work cases. Their efforts draw attention to the national issue of child sex trafficking and highlight Portland as a place that child sex trafficking occurs.

“Does Portland have a degree of problem? Of course it does,” said Nicholas. “I would say that any area in the country that says that they don’t have a problem isn’t looking for it. The more and more we look for it, the more we find it.”

A U.S. Department of Justice study estimated 244,000 children were at risk to be exploited by child sex trafficking in the United States.

Nationwide, Nicholas says the majority of child victims are African American females, at an average age of 14 or 15. The majority of pimps are also African American, some driven by gang involvement, others by greed or by a push to enter the family business. Traffickers tend to be involved with drugs, guns or other illicit activity. They sell sex with children online, in brothels, through strip clubs, lingerie shops and other venues. While national statistics indicate 25 percent of adult prostitutes say they started out as minors, Nicholas said 100 percent of the women he’s interviewed started out as kids.

Police suggest some characteristics of Portland play a role in fostering child sex trafficking, including its location along I-5 between Los Angeles, Seattle and Vancouver. Social service workers say Portland’s notoriously large legal sex industry – strip clubs, lingerie shops, escort services and the like – offers cover for illicit trading in children. And they say the city’s famously robust homeless youth population is a beacon for opportunists on the hunt for desperate kids.

Yet drawing a clear picture of how Portland fits into the overall problem of child sex trafficking in America is a difficult task.

“You will never get the number, the true number of kids involved in child prostitution, because they are such a transient population,” said Nicholas.

He emphasized that pimps are constantly moving children to avoid police detection and to meet shifting market demands. Aside from the difficulty in assessing a roving industry, much of the data the FBI does have is kept secret.

Eight years into its massive crime-fighting effort, Innocence Lost has swelled to 40 task forces, opened 1,000 cases, made 4,000 arrests and recovered 1,038 victims. But as the project popularizes child sex trafficking as an issue, Innocence Lost shares little data to help frame the issue. The locations of task forces are not always public, nor are data showing where arrests are made and children are recovered.

“The reason why we won’t reveal all of our information, particularly the location of the task forces, is because we don’t want the dealers and the pimps to know where we are,” said Nicholas. “Too often we reveal information and then the crooks just adjust.”

That position, however, has provoked dubious fame for Portland. Innocence Lost conducts periodic stings to raise awareness about child sex trafficking. In its third national sting in February 2009, Portland ranked second in the nation for the number of children rescued – seven.  When the information was released to the media, the unexplained statistic galvanized national news reports calling Portland one of the top cities in the nation for child sex trading.

Glenn Norling, supervisor special agent at the FBI Portland, said data from nationwide stings are not crime statistics, and serve as poor substitutes. Some task forces work for several days to participate in a sting, for example, while others work a few hours. Some may set aside planned arrests for a sting, looking to make a bigger impact for publicity’s sake.

Norling notes that the February 2009 sting was the first such sting Portland participated in, and the city had been unseasonably warm for two weeks at the time, possibly affecting results. The sting did not include larger cities with potentially deeper-rooted cultures of prostitution, namely New York and Los Angeles.

There’s another reason the number it produced may not be a yardstick for the child sex trafficking industry in America: concern about tourism and other economic factors have prevented some cities from participating in Innocence Lost at all.

Nicholas said the city he considers most active for child sex trafficking does not have a task force, though he declined to name the city.

“It appears as though they have minimal to no problem at all when it comes to this, and that’s not the case at all,” he said.

Note: This text was corrected from the original regarding Dan Rather’s position.

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