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Youth sex trade more common here than elsewhere, experts say

The question on almost everyone’s mind at a June 18 presentation on human trafficking was an obvious one: Is it a problem in Washington County?

The answer was not reassuring. According to Det. Yonsoo Lee of the Tigard Police Department, this type of crime is more common in Washington County than anywhere else in Oregon.

“Smaller communities ask, ‘is this a problem for us, or is it a big city problem?’” said Lee. “We found 68 percent (of the minor victims) were recruited from or exploited in Washington County.”

That’s 148 girls.

Lee was one of several law-enforcement and social-help experts who came to St. Matthew Parish Hall in Hillsboro to present information on human trafficking, an increasingly serious issue in Washington County and all across Oregon.

“We aren’t talking about your girls getting pulled off the MAX at night,” said Lee.

He explained that sex trafficking occurs when girls showing signs of chronic truancy and runaway behavior — the most common risk factors — are befriended and seduced into manipulative sexual relationships.

“It’s like MTV on steroids,” said Hillsboro Attorney Paul Maloney. “They get to do what they want, when they want. It’s a very different culture, much coarser. It’s the result of a coarsening of society.”

The Sexual Assault Resource Center (SARC) began tracking hard numbers on these types of crimes in 2011. Lee pointed out that SARC identified 219 minor victims of sex trafficking. Most of them had links to Washington County.

More than 50 people attended the presentation at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Hillsboro, entitled “The New Slavery,” and the majority were parents. SARC also had staff at a booth for the event.

“We are the only organization in the nation that is connected to a rape crisis center,” said Lena Sinha of Beaverton-based SARC. “It makes our program unique.”

SARC takes referrals from law enforcement officials and the Department of Human Services (DHS). When victims come in, they are assigned to a case manager who remains as a confidential advocate, consistently building bridges back to resources for them.

“We have an entire collaboration of partners in the Portland area, which is great because the needs of these victims are so diverse,” said Sinha. “We are developing best practices of how to best help them. Everyone in our collaboration understands that these children are victims, not criminals.”

The Portland area is a hotspot for human trafficking because of the high population of homeless youth, its proximity to state lines and the major freeways such as I-5 running through it.

“It’s happening in every town and every county,” said Sinha. “We are paying attention. If you’re looking for it, you’ll find it.”

“These girls come from all different backgrounds,” added Lee.

Lee said the best results occur when victims agree to leave the state and resources are available to them. But according to Lee, programs, funding and bed spaces are few and far between.

“We are lacking the social services to give these girls a new environment,” said Lee. “They’re sucked into the same risk factors. There’s no shortage of traffickers.”

Many in the crowd expressed concerns about safety for their own families, but Lt. John Black of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office consoled them.

“Washington County as a county is a very safe place,” assured Black. “The information you gained tonight is knowledge you didn’t have before, and it’s scary.”

Maloney had some advice for those who attended.

“It starts at home with the example we set for our children. Be involved, ask questions, be there,” he said. “Show them relationships where they can trust adults who care about them.”

Besides sex trafficking, labor trafficking was discussed. Det. Keith Bickford of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and leader of the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force talked about the complexities of labor trafficking and its prominence in the Portland metro area as well.

“The important part is all of you,” said Bickford, who has worked with 200 victims this past year. “Educate yourselves and keep your eyes open. Understand both sides, understand that people coming up here aren’t coming here all on their own.

“If you are interested and want to get involved, we can be a very powerful group of people. I can guarantee you that the worlds are colliding. You are the army.”

Bickford added that he believes Mexican cartels are gaining influence in Oregon.

“There’s a storm coming,” he said. “It all has to do with money and control.”

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