PORTLAND — The Portland metro area has long been pointed to as a hub for child sex trafficking, but the evidence was anecdotal and proof was elusive.
On Monday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office presented what is said is the first clear data on commercial sex exploitation of children, counting 469 Portland victims between 2009 and 2013.
The study’s conclusions were unsurprising: Victims of sex trafficking are overwhelmingly female, are likely to suffer from addiction issues and are disproportionately likely to be from an ethnic minority compared to the number of minorities in the metro area. It drew its numbers from minors who either asked for help from a sex-assault resource center or were sent to the Department of Human Services by the police or social service agencies.
“These are children traumatized by abuse on a daily basis, numbed by chemicals and really trying to navigate an impossible environment for them,” said Lois Day, Director of Child Welfare at the state Department of Human Services.
Part of the idea behind the study is to draw attention to the problem and the need for financial assistance.
U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall has said that a facility to house child sex trafficking victims while their trafficker is indicted, tried and potentially convicted would greatly help prosecutors. They often confront sex-trafficking victims unwilling to testify, convinced that their testimony will put them in danger, or those initially willing to testify but who revert to prostitution and drugs while the criminal justice system processes the accused.
“Let me tell you, we could do three times more if we could just keep these kids safe and secure long enough to testify,” Marshall said.
Marshall said the numbers are an “incredibly conservative” tabulation of the scope of the problem.
The study by a Portland State University researcher is the first of its kind in the way that it counts victims, so comparisons to other cities isn’t yet possible.
“It’s the first step of this collaborative engagement,” said the researcher, Christopher Carey. “(The study) is not a comprehensive report on the state of trafficking in the state of Oregon. It’s not a percentage of our kids trafficked in the state.”
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said a bill he’s co-sponsoring will put federal dollars behind an effort to combat child sex trafficking, and hopes other states and metro areas will emulate the study.
Child sex trafficking victims in the Portland metro area have a median age of approximately 15, and about half are likely to have a gang connection. More than 16 percent were parents.
Since taking office, Marshall has stressed the prosecution of child sex trafficking in Portland. She assigned two additional prosecutors to what was a one-person unit before she arrived and has looked for ways to involve federal resources in what is usually a local crime.
Marshall is taking her direction from the top — namely, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who has made the prosecution of child sex trafficking a higher priority than it was in previous administrations.
Marshall has said that Portland is one of a network of cities on the West Coast that serve as child sex-trafficking hubs, and its place on the Interstate 5 corridor adds to the number of children available.
“We know these are kids that we have a possibility of reaching if there were resources in the community,” Marshall said. “We hope this spurs state leadership on this issue and sends a strong message to our community that in Oregon our kids are not for sale.”