Authorities say organized gangs increasingly are trafficking children for sex in the Northwest, and even cooperating with each other to stymie police. Meanwhile in Portland, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has become the third most prolific nationally in securing indictments for trafficking children and adults for sex.
PORTLAND —This river city along Interstate 5 has long had a reputation as a hotspot for child sex trafficking, even after a 2010 report to Congress made it clear that Seattle and other American cities are just as bad and that sex with children is a burgeoning American pastime. It’s a sad truth many communities have yet to embrace. But consider the numbers:
Police say escort ads for young women are a good barometer of the size of a trafficking market in any town — women billed as young but legal who often turn out to be minors. The Portland metro area, population 2.3 million, saw 377 total listings for escorts in a recent week on the web site Backpage. Seattle, with a metro-area population of 3.5 million, had 523 — roughly the same rate per capita.
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 — The 14-year-old girl has no place to go. The people in her family can’t protect her or provide her with a good home.
The man she calls “Dad” was her mother’s pimp. Her grandmother was a prostitute, too.
She has been in and out of the foster care system since the age of 3 and first sold for sex at about age 9. Her sex appeal has been cultivated from such an early age that she shows little interest in much else. She is restless in the locked treatment facility she lives in.
In Oregon’s Multnomah County, officials are tracking about 120 children, like the 14-year-old, who are involved in sex trafficking. The intent is to coordinate responses by police, prosecutors, child welfare workers and social service providers.
“Predominantly we see kids that are known to child welfare,” said Joslyn Baker, a collaboration specialist for the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice in a program known as the Community Response to Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children.
Though children in the sex trade sometimes come from secure homes, most have histories of sexual abuse and violence for which they have not received proper treatment, Baker said. They also can be frequent runaways.
Pimps, she said, “very much prey on the vulnerability of the child and what is missing in that child’s life,” filling a void. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re so pretty,’ or ‘You’re so smart. I could be your boyfriend.’ They will groom them for weeks or even months.”
By the time the children are sold for sex, Baker said, they are bonded to their pimps. Like victims of domestic violence, the children don’t run away. Instead, they want to get back to that good time when they felt cared for and loved.
Social service providers who are focused on the problem convene twice monthly to brainstorm options. There are few.