Tackling human trafficking in Clackamas County
They come from different agencies and organizations, but they all have one passion and one overriding mission — to stop the spread of human trafficking in Clackamas County.
They are a dozen people who make up the Clackamas County Human Trafficking Multidisciplinary Team, which meets once a month in Oregon City. They are dedicated to identifying and helping youth and adults who are being trafficked, and prosecuting the traffickers who exploit them.
But first, before the team was formed in 2018, Rusty Amos, Clackamas County senior deputy district attorney, needed to educate himself about the problem.
In 2015, he developed a working group with local law enforcement to explore human trafficking. The group's first course of action was to meet with representatives from the Portland Police Bureau and the Multnomah County District Attorney's office who specialize in trafficking cases.
During the meeting, Amos was asked questions that took him aback: "Do we have the internet? Do we have a vulnerable population of youth and adults? Do individuals in the county have disposable income? Do people want more money? Do individuals in the county like sex? If the answer is yes, then you have a problem. Everyone has a problem," Amos said.
The working group quickly learned that the internet has changed the business model for traffickers. They are now able to post "escort" advertisements on numerous websites and apps, using dating sites and other internet sources to advertise. The internet expanded the prostitution market, along with demand, making it easier to reach customers with less risk.
It also allowed traffickers to recruit and groom victims into prostitution through chat rooms, dating sites and mainstream apps, including Instagram.
The working group paged through cases from 2015-16 and identified 67 cases of promoting prostitution, including one involving a 15-year-old Clackamas County girl. Her trafficker had set up 10 different dates within a span of three hours and charged $200-$300 per date.
"For the traffickers, it's all about the money," Amos said.
They "romance their victims, but then that quickly transitions into a life of violence, fear and sex/rape for money with strangers. It's about power and manipulation."
Amos noted that in 2016, statistics showed that human trafficking worldwide was a $150 billion business. That same year, Fox News reported that the United States was ranked as one of the worst countries for incidents of human trafficking.
"The criminals understand the lucrative nature of the crime, and they are taking full advantage of it, and we're letting them do it," he said.
"Our state and local governments, law enforcement and the general public don't believe it exists, so most jurisdictions aren't doing anything to identify it, report, investigate or prosecute," Amos said.
In 2016-17, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a report stating that "human trafficking is modern-day slavery and considered to be one of the fastest-growing criminal industries in the world," Amos said.
In 2019, the only two Oregon counties prosecuting trafficking cases were Multnomah and Clackamas, according to the Oregon Department of Justice. Here in Clackamas County, the efforts of a small team of investigators with the sheriff's office led to the identification, investigation and prosecution of 41 traffickers and 140 victims between 2016 and now, Amos said.
Like Amos, Community Prosecutor Bill Stewart thought Clackamas County did not have a human trafficking problem. But during a one-day conference in Multnomah County he saw the visitor list for a known trafficker, and of the 10 young women visiting the offender, half lived in Clackamas County.
Stewart, who is a member of the multidisciplinary team, said that "98% of traffickers are male, and they can run their victims from jail. That opened my eyes."
Since that time, Stewart, who works in the DA's office, has been struggling to make people realize that there is significant trafficking taking place in the county.
In his 16 years as a prosecutor, Amos says the trauma now endured by the youth and adults who are victims of trafficking is the worst he has ever seen. Stories abound of dysfunctional families, abusive environments, years of sexual assault and violence.
"The more difficult the victim (is to deal with,) the more they have endured and the more they need our help," he said.
Once Amos realized the scope of human trafficking, he knew that it would take a team to combat the problem. So he contacted Jana Wiseman, the commercial sexual exploitation of children coordinator for the county's Juvenile Department.
Amos knew that Wiseman had started pulling people together from various agencies as early as 2011, but now it was 2018 and he wanted to form a multidisciplinary team and get it certified by the Oregon Department of Justice.
The team now consists of representatives from the county's district attorney's office, the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office, the Juvenile Department, the Behavioral Health Division and the Department of Human Services, among others. Representatives from Safety Compass, which offers support for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, and a Village for One, a nonprofit organization developed to serve children who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation, are also part of the team.
All the team members agree that working together and sharing resources is the best thing about the Clackamas County Human Trafficking Multidisciplinary Team.
In her position working with sexually exploited children, Wiseman began drawing people together because she realized the value of collaborating with other agencies and organizations within the county.
"In 2010, one of my supervisors started looking into girls involved with prostitution," Wiseman said, adding that at that time it was a "gender-specific thing."
Now, "Sexual identity doesn't matter; victims can also be young men or transgender."
Wiseman also noted that these young victims must be treated differently than youth involved in burglaries or drugs.
As the task force coordinator for Safety Compass, Allie Martin agreed.
"Our nonprofit agency works with sex trafficking survivors. Because we work in a confidential capacity, there is little we can do without partners," she said.
"Being able to have community partners allows for survivors to get to safety," she added.
Martin noted that according to new data collected by the Department of Justice and Oregon DHS, the state identified 746 victims of human trafficking across Oregon, from October 2018 to October 2019. In Clackamas County, 138 victims were identified, second only to Multnomah County's 208 victims.
Committed to the cause
Torrey McConnell, a deputy district attorney in the Clackamas County District Attorney's office, said she first began working with prostitution cases as a law student, about three years ago.
Those individuals "are the most vulnerable victims; I have a passion for prosecuting traffickers," she said.
Kelly Walsh, a social service specialist with the North Clackamas branch of the Oregon Department of Human Services, works with youth ages 13 to 17, and noted that DHS is especially concerned if "a child is being contacted online and exploited on the internet."
She joined the team because it is so valuable to get members together to "bounce ideas" off one another.
Walsh also noted that all those on the team are dedicated to supporting victims of trafficking and bringing perpetrators to justice.
"Nobody at this table works 9-5; everyone is so committed," she said.
Keysha Kendall is a victim advocate in the Victim Assistance Program in the DA's office.
Her primary goal is "letting individuals know that someone is advocating for them," she said.
Kendall helps trafficking victims navigate the system and works with community partners to help them stay safe.
Creating a coalition of agencies has been helpful, noted Carrie Walker, the director of the Victim Assistance Program in the DA's office.
"We are able to take all these different cases and hold the offenders accountable. We all need to be a part of the solution" to the problem of human trafficking, Walker said.
As the Clackamas County wraparound care coordinator in the county's Behavioral Health Division, Pam Rivers works with complex mental health cases and is committed to supporting trafficking victims.
This population is "particularly at high risk," she said, and helping them is personal to her.
The same sentiment applies to Erin Prendergast, DHS child welfare supervisor, who describes being on the team and helping the adolescent victims she sees as a "passion of mine."
What she likes best about the multidisciplinary team is that it is constantly growing and evolving, as the members figure out what the county needs to solve the problem of human trafficking.
Traffickers are "some of the baddest of the bad guys," Stewart said.
"They pillage our communities, and if we ignore them, we're allowing them into our community to destroy victims and their families," he added.
Also, people "don't realize how hard these cases are to prosecute; it's like domestic violence on steroids," Stewart said.
Educating the public
One of the biggest challenges in dealing with human trafficking is education.
"Public awareness is crucial to understanding the victimology," Amos said, noting that the myth that prostitution is a choice is still alive.
People need to learn how to identify trafficking and what to do about it, Amos said.
"If you're not looking for it and you don't care, you won't find it," he said.
The lack of education about human trafficking results in a lack of resources for law enforcement to take a proactive approach, Amos said, adding that law enforcement is stretched thin.
Ultimately, the community, including public officials, needs to increase their awareness about human trafficking.
"We need our partners in the community to understand and allow us to help victims find a way out of the life," Stewart said.
The DA's office offers victims a chance to participate in the Community Court program, where they can connect with the services they need to find a path out of human trafficking, Stewart said.
He added, "We're not effective without this team, which is why the multidisciplinary approach is so important."
Call for help
For more information about human trafficking, contact the district attorney's office or the 24-hour victim assistance line for Clackamas County; both can be reached at 503-655-8616.
Anyone who suspects that abuse or trafficking is taking place can call the Oregon Abuse Hotline at 1-855-503-SAFE (7233).
People in crisis who need to speak with a Safety Compass advocate may call 971-235-0021.
Sex trafficking survivor shares her story
Creator of iSee You Foundation wants to help others stop cycle of exploitation
Desiree was 18 and homeless when she engaged in "survival sex" in exchange for a place to sleep.
At the time, she didn't even realize that "survival sex" fell under the definition of human trafficking. When she was 19, she officially entered the sex industry when she was exploited by a "boyfriend" as a dancer.
But this is not a story that ends tragically. Desiree, who does not want her last name or photograph used for this story, not only pulled herself out of the trafficking life but also founded an organization to help others leave that life behind.
Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Desiree about what happened to her and how she has survived and thrived.
Q. How long were you involved in the human trafficking life?
A. Seven years. When I was 22 I moved to Hawaii to be with my last trafficker and worked the streets for buyers in Honolulu and occasional escort calls.
Q. Why do victims stay in that life?
A. There are many reasons, but to give a simple answer to a complex question, I would say first is the trauma bond between the victim and the trafficker, and secondly is the addiction to the "easy" money and the pace of the fast life and drama it comes with.
Q. How did you get out of that life?
A. God; I literally stepped out and walked by faith.
Q. Who helped you?
A. There were people that were available to me along the journey, but when I made the decision to leave the life altogether, I made the decision very discreetly and stepped out on nothing but faith.
My strongest support was from a couple I knew that would give me a ride to and from church on Sundays and occasional Wednesdays, which created a lifeline for me as I was rebuilding myself on a new foundation.
Q. What can people do to help victims of trafficking?
A. Be present. Be engaged. Be consistent, not judgmental. Love those people where they are at. We are champions at tearing ourselves down; we need to know that there are people who will love us just as we are and care enough to build us up.
Q. What is the iSee You Foundation? When did you found it and how did you come up with the name?
A. I created the foundation in 2018 and named it iSee You because that is one of the areas that makes us vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. We all want to be seen.
One of my greatest areas of vulnerability as a young person was that I never felt like I was seen — not in the sense of being the center of attention or popular, but in the order of the basics.
I want the youth and women I have had the privilege of knowing who have been exploited to know that they matter; that they are seen and they are loved.
Q. What is your mission statement?
A. Be Present. Be Engaged. Be Committed. We all want to be loved, and we all want to feel as though we are worth pursuing. Sadly, there are those who recognize this brokenness in others and they find ways to exploit that by selling a false sense of all those things we naturally want and need in relationships.
When you are starved in those places, you are prone to bite into anything being handed over to you, simply because it appears to be so much better than what you've had.
Q. Can people donate to your organization?
A. At this time I do not (accept donations), but I do consulting and volunteer my time. I am not nonprofit, so cannot provide a tax-deductible receipt for money given. As I increase my footprint within the work I am doing, I will pursue that piece to help me build on future programs.
Q. What has been the most rewarding thing about the foundation?
A. Right now I primarily partner with other organizations to help raise funds. I find great joy as I see the great work they do, like A Village for One, (a nonprofit developed to serve children who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation.) I also bring awareness to the issue through speaking engagements.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
A. I would like to create and implement a mentorship program within our middle schools that provides a safe place for our kids to learn about healthy relationships. (I want to make) it fun and engaging for them, while providing an informational training within the schools for the teachers and staff to recognize the red flags of trafficking.
Q. What do you hope people will take away from reading your story?
A. I hope that whoever reads this will walk away with a better understanding of what (human trafficking) is and why it happens. There is no "type" of person this happens to, so please do not consider anyone to be exempt from the potential vulnerability of being exploited.
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