Wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Kids are not for sale,” a dozen or so activists congregated at Marshall Park Thursday morning to laud passage of a law they say brings to light something that once was a dirty secret.
Legislation to impose tougher penalties on child sex traffickers and customers of child prostitutes took effect Thursday, bringing a renewed call to action from the police officers, politicians and families who came with umbrellas to the rainy celebration at the Vancouver park.
Linda Smith of Vancouver’s Shared Hope International told the crowd the new law brings optimism, but is only the first step in cracking down on a nationwide issue.
“I’m pretty tickled to stand before you and tell you Washington has passed this law in record time,” the former congresswoman said. “But a bill without action is just a piece of paper.”
Passed in March, the law increases the sentencing range for promotion of commercial sexual abuse of a minor, or pimping, from the previous 21 to 144 months to 93 to 318 months and raises the fine from $550 to $5,000. It also elevates the crime of commercial sexual abuse of a minor, or buying sex, to a sentencing range of 21 to 144 months, up from the one- to 68-month range.
In addition, the law eliminates the defense of “I thought she was 18” often offered by johns, and ensures child prostitutes don’t face criminal charges on their first arrest but instead receive juvenile services.
The new law symbolizes Smith’s work, both in testifying before the Legislature and in conducting several training sessions to raise awareness of the issue among local police.
Already Vancouver police look at child sex trafficking cases differently than they did a year ago, said Lt. John Chapman. Once thought to be a Portland-only phenomenon, Chapman said a little digging showed an emerging issue.
“It’s just below the surface,” he said. “Most people don’t see it. But it’s there.”
To crack down, Chapman said police are now more vigilant to the warning signs of child sex trafficking. If a runaway is believed to be with an older man, that could be a sign of prostitution, which police follow up on more rigorously, he said.
Sometimes the warning signs aren’t as obvious, Chapman added. Brianna, a striking La Center 18-year-old, was on hand at Thursday’s celebration to tell of her close call last December. An honor student and star athlete, she was far from a typical case. But her horror was all the same.
Brianna briefly told reporters of how two men befriended her, taking her to Seattle for what she believed was partying. Instead, she was taken to a strip club to dance and was persuaded to give the men most of her money. A friend intervened, alerting her parents, and Brianna was rescued. This came before the men planned to take her to Phoenix.
She isn’t naive about what could have happened — it’s something she shared to lawmakers in lobbying for passage of the anti-sex trafficking law.
If not for her friend, parents and Smith, “I don’t know where I’d be,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “Probably far from here.”