Woman wants home for kids after sex horrors

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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To donate, visit http://calledtorescue.org

photo Cyndi Romine, founder of Vancouver's Called To Rescue organization, launched the nonprofit 20 years ago. Now, she has turned her lens to the local problem of child sex trafficking.

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photo Cyndi Romine, left, talks with Steve Johnson, the organization's marketing director, and husband, Greg Romine, in her office at Called to Rescue in east Vancouver on Thursday afternoon. The nonprofit is working to open safe houses for child sex trafficking victims in Clark County.

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Cyndi Romine's life changed on vacation in the Philippines in 1989.

She and her husband were on board an outrigger canoe when she saw something peculiar happening on the riverbank: A Caucasian man handed money to a man and woman. Out from behind the woman's skirt came a 3- or 4-year-old girl.

The man took the girl into the water, played with her and then took her to the shore, where Romine watched him rape her.

"It was horrendous," she said.

Romine then learned more about the child sex trafficking trade in the Southeast Asian country — military children living on the streets and being sold for sex. It propelled her to start her Vancouver nonprofit organization, Called to Rescue, in 1992.

Though her efforts initially focused on child prostitution internationally, Romine turned her lens to the United States and, locally, to the Vancouver-Portland area in 2008.

Now, Called to Rescue has lofty plans for Clark County: A series of safe houses for rescued girls.

"The girls have to know they're not going to be taken again," Romine said. "We need a secure place for them to heal."

Child sex trafficking emerged as a major regional issue about four years ago. Vancouver police Sgt. John Chapman, part of an FBI regional task force, helped launch a local effort to track down pimps. Last year, he estimated 50 Clark County girls were being sold for sex at any given time, compared with 150 to 200 Portland girls. Romine estimates her organization helps rescue two to three victims worldwide a month.

Another local woman, Linda Smith, a former congresswoman who founded Shared Hope International, has focused on legislation dealing with the crime and implementing tougher penalties for johns and pimps.

Romine's organization has focused more on the day-to-day grind of rescuing girls. Called to Rescue has 12 civilian task forces throughout the United States, which help find trafficked girls and report their whereabouts to police.

But there's a problem, as Sgt. Chapman told Romine: There are few, if any, safe houses for these girls once they are picked up.

Romine has helped build safe houses in other countries, and, "I can't leave my backyard dangling while I'm out saving the world," she said.

So far, the organization has raised about $100,000 in donations and has applied for several grants. The plan is to raise $2.3 million to pay for a ranch with six houses, which could house 36 girls at a time.

Romine said she anticipates the first house will be built next year, but hopes to have some type of housing available by this fall.

Called to Rescue is gearing up its fundraising and public relations efforts. It has secured Vancouver resident Britnee Kellogg, a former "American Idol" contestant, as its spokeswoman.

Kellogg will appear in public service announcements, perform at benefit concerts, and write and record songs in the upcoming year to draw attention to Called to Rescue.

As part of the housing plan, the organization wants to offer counseling, including drug and alcohol treatment, and a GED program.

There are very few housing options for survivors of child sex trafficking in the region or the state, and those that are available aren't focused specifically on that demographic.

Romine and her marketing director, Steve Johnson, said the victims need that escape from the grip of their pimp and the knowledge they are safe.

"The problem now is helping them," Johnson said. "That's the next step."

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