Sex trafficking is a lucrative $2 billion a year industry in the United States that preys on the vulnerable and hopeless. It may seem far away from places like Eugene and Springfield — but, sadly, it is not.
"It happens here and at shocking rates. If you think that you haven't directly come in contact with somebody who's been trafficked, you're kidding yourself," said Tamara LeRoy, who also serves as the trafficking intervention coordinator for Sexual Assault Support Services, or SASS.
The Register-Guard has been examining the impact of sex trafficking in Lane County in a multipart series. Shedding light on this problem is important. Victims are often hesitant to speak out because of the shame and stigma associated with such sexual exploitation. It is a topic often avoided in polite society.
But that avoidance gives traffickers room to do their work — too much room.
Sex trafficking is defined by the U.S. State Department as when a person engages in a commercial sex act by force, threats of force, fraud, coercion or any combination of those.
In Oregon, more than 100 sex trafficking cases were reported in 2018. That number is almost certainly a dramatic undercount of actual sex trafficking activity.
"There are a number of organizations like (Kids FIRST) that are spending a lot of money and time tracking this information, and even then it's hard to find," said Sarah Stewart, executive director of Kids FIRST, a Lane County child advocacy group. "We're working on making sure that the groups that we're working with are tracking data in a similar way. If we're all tracking different data, then we're not getting substantive samples."
Interstate 5, the nearly 1,400-mile-long interstate running from Mexico to Canada, is a major sex-trafficking corridor, according to law enforcement officials — though not all victims are relocated by their trafficker.
Parents may think of sex trafficking as something that happens to other people's children — runaways, kids with drug problems, etc. But sex traffickers are adept at recruiting all sorts of children, and parents need to be vigilant.
How can parents be pro-active? For one, actively monitor what your children are doing online and talk frankly about safety, their online presence and the risks they face.
"Right now (social media) is a very large platform that the kids in our community use and the traffickers do a lot of their recruiting through social media," said Curtis Newell, a Eugene police detective. "I get there's a fine balance between spying on your kid, but at the same time, if they fall into the hands of these traffickers that's not a good situation for them to be in."
Awareness is truly key. "If parents don't know what their kids are doing online, then they would have no idea if this was starting in their child's life," said Sara Jensen, a victim advocate for the Lane County District Attorney's Office. "And so when people say, 'Well, this doesn't happen here, it wouldn't happen to my child,' it's sort of like, well, do you know what your child is doing online, because that's where it can start."
Homeless and runaway teens are more vulnerable, and the community needs to work together as a whole to protect them. If you see something out of the ordinary with a kid on a street corner or at a gas station, notify law enforcement.
"Lane County has a significant runaway and homeless youth population, a vulnerable group that is easily targeted and, because of the clandestine nature of the industry, is underreported," said Florence Mackey, a victim specialist for the Salem, Eugene and Medford FBI offices. "There are limited resources to support child trafficking victims and addressing the needs of a sex trafficking victim is a complex issue."
Sex trafficking doesn't always look the way it's portrayed in movies and on television. We all need to be vigilant and aware of what's happening, not just in our families, but in our community. If you see someone or something suspicious, don't hesitate to report it to law enforcement. The Lane County Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Multidisciplinary Team (ecaseylane.org) would be a good place to start.
As we've said before, it's also important for the community to remember that the individuals forced into sex trafficking are the victims. Survivors should not be shamed or shunned. The community should work to bring them back — and prevent the victimization of others.
— The Eugene Register-Guard