Human trafficking and sexual exploitation of minors isn’t a problem unique to big cities. It happens in Clark County, too, and soon, dedicated outreach specialists will begin work to identify and support those youth.
Portland-based Janus Youth Programs received a $206,101 grant from the state Department of Commerce’s Office of Crime Victims Advocacy to launch a program to address sex trafficking in Clark County. The grant will fund two outreach specialists and a case manager who should begin work here within a month, said Dennis Morrow, executive director of Janus Youth Programs.
“This is the first time we have dedicated funding for this work,” Morrow said, “and that’s what’s exciting.”
The outreach specialists will be working out of Janus’ drop-in center in downtown Vancouver, The Perch. They’ll go to places where victims of sex trafficking are often targeted, such as homeless camps, shelters and malls.
“What we’re really trying to do it find out who’s out there and what they need,” Morrow said. “We’re looking for the places where they are so we can make a connection with them.”
The goal, Morrow said, is to not only get victims into services, but to build trust with those who aren’t ready to leave that life so they know where to turn when they are ready for help.
Having a trusted person to turn to is vital for survivors of human trafficking, said Michelle Bart, communications chair for the Clark County Human Trafficking Task Force. Bart is also the president and co-founder of the National Women’s Coalition Against Violence & Exploitation.
“It’s vital to the welfare and the overall outcome of how a victim will be able to get back on their feet,” Bart said. “They need to know they have someone they trust to call.”
The outreach workers will also give community presentations to help others identify sex-trafficked youth and how to get them into services. The local case manager will facilitate getting the victims any needed assessments and services.
The local outreach program will be modeled after similar efforts in Portland. And despite what people may think, the services are needed locally, Morrow said.
“The hardest piece of this work is getting us all through our denial,” he said. “We all have to see what’s there, and then we can collectively do something about it.”
Workers with the state Department of Social and Health Services who track down children in foster care who have run away reported that they identified 100 area youth in one year who exhibited signs that they may have been sexually exploited, Morrow said.
A couple of years ago, the juvenile jail re-entry program started asking minors if they had ever traded sex for things like money, food and clothes, and had 210 answer “yes,” he said.
And last year, workers at Janus’ Oak Grove Youth Shelter in Vancouver identified 12 youth who were being actively trafficked and another 36 who said they had been approached about it, Morrow said.
“We’re in community denial about this because we don’t want to see kids in our community who should be with families living on the street and trying to survive,” he said. “And you definitely don’t want to see they have to sell their bodies to stay alive.”
Janus has been working with local partners and the Clark County Human Trafficking Task Force and its 30-plus member organizations for years, Morrow said.
That community partnership, he said, was key to obtaining the grant — one of only three awarded in the state.
The work by the outreach specialists will help to quantify the need for such services locally, though Morrow suspects many will be surprised by what the program finds.
“There’s always more than you think, and it’s always worse than you imagine,” Morrow said. “I’m sure we’re going to find more than we want.”
“This is an opportunity for us all to be uncomfortable and then see what we can do as a community to save our kids,” he added.