Trafficking our local girls
Few services are provided to prevent and protect local girls from exploitation. But at a recent Town Hall meeting, support to end the epidemic is giving rise to a new 21st Century civil rights cause.
SEATTLE — The sexual exploitation of underaged, teenage girls in the Seattle and King County region continues to rise, a trend that is likely to continue in the future unless more vigorous steps are taken to combat it according to local experts.
The Internet and the online solicitation of young girls, in particular, are proving to be a far more dangerous trend, making sex trafficking a lucrative business.
“It’s happening every day in the United States,” said Deborah Richardson, chief programs officer for the Women’s Funding Alliance. “The sexual exploitation of young women is the number one civil rights issue of the twenty-first century.”
The vast majority of child prostitutes in our region come from homes where they have been the victims of parental abuse, according to Leslie Briner, associate director of residential services for YouthCare. “Girls of color are disproportionately represented.”
Briner supervises the Bridge Program, a new pilot residential-recovery program that provides a continuum of services for commercially sexually-exploited youth in Seattle, and only the fourth such program of its kind in the nation.
“Young girls are especially vulnerable because they need love and affection,” Briner said. “The younger they are, the more money they make. But these girls have no control over their money. Pimps can make over $1,000 a night, and the girls get none of it. They have to be on the streets for 24-hours at a time.“
Since 2009, Briner has been a consultant with the City of Seattle Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention Division to develop community-based training and programming to respond to commercially sexually-exploited youth in Seattle.
“We need more resources for law enforcement, and more resources for treatment beds,” she explained. “The federal government needs more funding to outlaw online trafficking,”
Richardson, the former CEO of the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, led the Women’s Funding Network’s national initiative as an advocate against child sexual exploitation. At a Seattle Town Hall program on Jan. 20, Richardson and other local anti-trafficking advocates for tighter controls on the exploitation of young girls shared other alarming statistics.
“The average age of entry into prostitution is 12 years-old,” said Richardson. “Eighty to ninety percent of the victims of domestic sex trafficking have been sexually abused. Sex trafficking has become a lucrative business, and its numbers are increasing because of the Internet.”
Online trafficking offers anonymity and low risk, Richardson explained. “Pimps get hundreds of thousands of dollars. More than 12,000 men in the U.S. go online to buy sex.”
Craigslist, the number one online platform for sexual solicitation, netted $35 million last year from its adult services section before it was shut down. Back Page is now the leading site and makes $17 million annually advertising young girls for sex, said Richardson. The website’s adult services were also shut down recently.
“Selling sex is an illegal activity in the U.S.,” she said. “Internet sites should not be allowed to victimize girls. Online sites are being used for recruiting young girls into prostitution. Some young men are even selling their girlfriends for money. No upfront capital is involved,” she said. “It amounts to kidnapping.”
Richardson outlined four strategies to combat domestic sex trafficking: enact federal legislation to outlaw websites that claim immunity from penalties for online sex trafficking; aggressive prosecution of pimps and “johns” (those soliciting the services of prostitutes); more resources for law enforcement; and decriminalization of young girls who are exploited as young prostitutes.
“The children lured into street and Internet prostitution are victims, not criminals,” said Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, a leading advocate of tougher law enforcement to curb domestic trafficking.
“Once lured in, it is hard for them to escape this abusive environment. It’s equivalent to slavery,” he wrote in a recent blog post. At the Town Hall meeting, Burgess, who held public meetings about domestic trafficking the same day, said that Washington state has become a national leader in fighting the trafficking of young women.
“It was one of the first states to receive federal grants towards anti-trafficking efforts,” Burgess said. “Our success stems in part from a series of bills passed from 2002 to 2009.”
Former Washington State Representative, Velma Veloria, was instrumental in the passage of House Bill 2381, the first bill in the country making human trafficking a crime at the state level. Veloria, who represented Seattle’s 11th District, was one of the first Filipino American state legislators.
In 2009, State Representative Mary Lou Dickerson sponsored a bill to allow the diversion of juveniles away from the criminal justice system. The measure passed unanimously in 2009. Penalties for the “johns” who prey on children have also increased.
New legislation, Washington Senate Bill 6476, passed last June, increases the penalty for promoting commercial sexual abuse to a Class A felony punishable by $5,000 in fines and 7-10 years in prison, the equivalent of first-degree rape or first-degree assault.
It also increases penalties for men who pay for sex with underage prostitutes, from a maximum 90-day jail term for first-time offenders to roughly two-year prison sentences, and thousands of dollars in fines. The law also mandates training for law enforcement and DSHS workers.
“A big problem is that there are few services for juveniles and fewer for adults nationwide,” Burgess said. The Bridge, Seattle’s new residential recovery program for prostituted youth, is a transitional housing program that provides shelter and support to underage children involved in sex trafficking. “But it has limited capacity and a long waiting list.”
One hopeful trend is that law enforcement has made the sex trafficking of minors a top priority. Last year alone, the Seattle Police Department’s Vice and High Risk Victims Unit recovered 80 prostituted youth, which was up from 40 in 2009, 30 in 2008, and 20 in 2007.
Burgess first learned about the widespread sexual exploitation of children on his first day in office in 2008 as a new Seattle City Councilmember when he read about it in a city-commissioned study. The study reported on the 300-500 prostituted children in King County.
“The numbers and stories in the report shocked me,” Burgess recalls in his blog. “Nearly all of these children — some as young as 13 — are coerced into this practice by predatory pimps and gangs.”
Who is the typical “john”? “It can be anyone,” said Debra Boyer, president of Boyer Research. “What’s in our backyard is the norm of exploiting girls and women.”
Boyer, the principal investigator on numerous studies of sexually exploited women and children, has been a longtime advocate for services and treatment for commercially sexually exploited women and children.
The number one risk for young girls on the streets is homicide, according to Sean O’Donnell, senior deputy prosecuting attorney for the King County Prosecutor’s Office in Seattle and a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington.
“Girls face the risk of rape, sexually-transmitted disease, and a lifetime of shame,” he said. “The problem is everywhere in our region. The first priority is to rescue the girls, bring them to the Bridge, or other social service providers.”
O’Donnell was one of four deputies assigned to State vs. Ridgeway, a serial murder prosecution involving the so-called “Green River Killer.” He has since devoted much of his practice to cases involving the forced prostitution of juveniles. He successfully prosecuted Washington’s first Commercial and Sexual Abuse of a Minor case and the state’s first Human Trafficking case in 2009. O’Donnell’s office files about 40 cases a year against alleged pimps who profit from the sale of women and girls.
Local experts agree on the need to galvanize a grassroots effort to stem the growing cases of sex trafficking of young women. “The civil rights movement began with women,” Richardson said. The legislators who initiated the first laws against human trafficking were all women, she noted.
The long-term success of the campaign to rid the country of the scourge of youth prostitution will require vigilance, however. “We have to confront in every way what dehumanizes and turns women into commodities,” Boyer said.
Collin Tong is a Seattle freelance journalist, staff reporter at the International Examiner and frequent contributor to the Seattle PostGlobe. He was a Michele Clark Fellow at the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and visiting lecturer at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.