Don’t be deceived: Sex slavery is here

Program for students aims to curb the crime

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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A program launched this year in area schools spotlighting child sex trafficking is called “Deceptions.”

It’s a fitting name: Deception is clearly how the crime can run rampant, an executive director of the nonprofit group spearheading the program told the Vancouver Rotary Club on Wednesday.

Many in Clark County don’t believe child sex slavery occurs here, said Jim Grenfell, who heads AWARE, an organization whose mission is teaching teens to make healthy choices.

Many believe the crime is isolated, only affecting runaways. And children who could fall victim don’t easily recognize the warning signs, he said.

“Like me, there have been people in shock and disbelief that this is actually going on here,” Grenfell said. “It’s going on in our community every day.”

Grenfell gave a lunchtime presentation at the Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at the Quay to Rotarians about the new program, which so far has partnered with schools in the Evergreen and Hockinson school districts, as well as some Portland schools. The presentation was part of the club’s regular meeting.

The development of AWARE’s two-hour educational program in health classes was paid for by the Rotary’s Festival of Trees fundraiser, which last year raised more than $35,000.

Grenfell told Rotarians that AWARE first did research last winter and spring before launching a pilot project to 500 students. This fall, organizers brought the program into the schools.

Among the statistics the nonprofit found: There are 1.2 million children trafficked worldwide, and the total market value worldwide of the child sex trade is $32 billion, he said.

In this region, hundreds of children are being sold for sex, Grenfell said. His program aims to curb the crime by going to the target — the kids.

AWARE’s program includes a video of a local girl’s story in which she meets a prospective pimp in Portland and he offers her a ride home. Then, he gains her trust by complimenting her looks and giving her gifts and attention. But after the two start “dating,” the pimp becomes aggressive, forcing her to sell herself for sex.

Grenfell said the story teaches students to look at their own vulnerabilities and how they can avoid falling victim to predators. “These guys are master manipulators,” Grenfell said.

So far, the feedback from students has been widely positive, he said. Students said they felt like they could relate to the victim’s story and her vulnerabilities.

“The kids responded. They were angry that this was happening to their peers,” Grenfell said. “Some of the comments were, ‘I never knew it was such an organized crime.’”

Plans are in the works to continue the program and introduce it to other schools.

Laura McVicker: www.twitter.com/col_courts;www.facebook.com/reportermcvicker;laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.