If defining the horrible proportions of a problem helps in finding solutions, then a Portland State University study released this week will advance the cause of those fighting to stop child sex trafficking.

The PSU research, conducted for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Oregon, documents that at least 469 Portland-area children were victims of sex trafficking in the past four years. U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall describes the study’s results as “truly shocking,” but everyone involved also seems to agree the report underestimates the number of children affected.

It is distressing to imagine hundreds of children from our communities ensnared in the sex trade. Yet, the PSU research leaves little doubt this is a community problem. Almost all of the metro-area victims — 97 percent — are girls. They get exploited through a number of avenues, including family members and gangs. The majority are Caucasian or African American, with an average age of 15.5.

By quantifying the extent of child sex trafficking in this area, the PSU study justifies the legislative attention already being paid to the issue. New laws and services must be aimed at punishing the exploiters, ending the demand and providing safety and services to victims.

Rep. Carolyn Tomei of Milwaukie shepherded two bills through the Legislature this year: One increases penalties for those who pay for sex with minors, while the other makes it easier to prosecute pimps who try to force someone into prostitution.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is co-sponsoring proposed federal legislation that would require states to do a better job of identifying victims of sex trafficking and providing services to them.

Wyden’s bill acknowledges that minors involved in sex trafficking are too often categorized as criminals — as prostitutes — rather than being recognized for what they are: children who’ve been abused and victimized. As such, enforcing new or old laws can go only so far in helping children who are either involved or at risk of being involved in sex trafficking.

Instead, safe shelter and services are required. With a big push from Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel — partnering with Janus Youth Programs — has funded four to six shelter beds specifically for children who’ve been sexually exploited for money. More beds are needed, along with the mental health and social services that can prevent these children from returning to the streets.

It’s also important to keep the regional nature of this issue in mind. This scourge is not confined to the city of Portland or Multnomah County. Like homelessness, domestic abuse and so many other regional concerns, it is a problem that spills across jurisdictional boundaries, including into Clackamas County.

Child sex trafficking is mostly hidden from the average metro-area resident. The PSU research brings the numbers — if not the people — well into view. That plain visibility ought to provide motivation to do even more on behalf of these vulnerable children in our midst.

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