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A hidden crime: Child sex trafficking is on the rise

In 2010 Nacole, a Head Start teacher, and her husband Tom, a truck driver, were raising their three children, a 17-year-old son and two younger teenage daughters, in a middle-class suburb in Auburn, Wash.

Their youngest daughter, a 15-year-old, was seemingly a happy teen, a freshman honor student who loved playing the violin and running with her high school’s track team.

One day in March of that year she changed all of their lives forever.

“(She) disappeared. She left a note with a friend, but it didn’t say much,” Nacole said. “In the note, she said she loved us, but she needed to go find herself. She added that if we loved her we shouldn’t go looking for her.”

Stunned at their daughter’s disappearance, Nacole and Tom were frantic and desperate – questioning what had happened to her. It turned their world upside down. The couple reported their daughter missing to local law enforcement and began anxiously searching for her.

What happened to their 15-year-old daughter surpassed even their worst fears.

The last name of the family is not being disclosed out concern for their safety and privacy.

“In 36 hours, my daughter went from being a 15-year-old, all-American kiddo, to being sold for sex on Backpage.com,” Nacole said. “She had never been away from home overnight. She didn’t know anything about being out on the street, and they told her: ‘Let’s just go and have some fun.’ They took her to go drink and smoke some pot. She was the perfect victim.”

Although she returned home 10 days after being recruited in Seattle, on the first trip she had met another runaway at a homeless shelter for teens and subsequently ran away a second time several months later. Then she was recruited by a 32-year-old man who groomed her and eventually beat and raped her before advertising her as an escort.

Sex trafficking occurs when someone uses force, fraud or coercion to cause a commercial sex act with an adult or causes a minor to commit a commercial act. A commercial sex act includes prostitution, pornography and sexual performance done in exchange for any item of value, such as money, drugs, shelter, food and clothes.

Definitive numbers regarding the exact number of child victims of sex trafficking in the United States remain unknown. However, it is estimated that 300,000 Americans younger than 18 are lured into the commercial sex trade every year, according to the Ark of Hope for Children, a national nonprofit social network for abused children.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, human trafficking is the second fastest growing crime in the country and is on the rise in cities and towns in all 50 states – even here in Spokane.

Nacole tells her story

Nacole was a guest speaker at the Red Lion Inn in downtown Spokane in December when more than 250 professionals packed into a conference room to learn about child sex trafficking – how to recognize victims, what victims need, ways to prevent trafficking and how traffickers are targeting children online.

The community training was hosted by Spokane-based Partners With Families & Children, a nationally accredited children’s advocacy center in Spokane, and Lutheran Community Services Northwest, a nonprofit human services agency serving the Inland Northwest.

Nacole and her daughter’s story also are the focus of a documentary called, “The Long Night,” directed by Seattle-based journalist Tim Matsui, as well as another documentary called “I Am Jane Doe.” Both films were shown and discussed at the Spokane conference.

Sex trafficking of children is one of the most horrific and sickening crimes there is, yet it’s nearly invisible to the public and sometimes even to those who work with families and children, said Linda Safford, PWFC director. Safford said the organization received a $55,000 grant last year to develop resources in the community to combat child sex trafficking in Spokane.

Safford initiated talks in the community over the past year to find out where her organization could help identify gaps in service and resources.

PWFC specializes in forensic medical exams for children who have been abused. One of its nurse practitioners is a state expert in diagnosing child abuse who provides expert testimony in court cases.

Any type of immediate victim support, whether it’s food, clothing, medical care, housing or transportation is provided.

Most of the children are “12 and under and mostly 10 and under,” Safford said. “Teens are typically referred to adult services.”

Between January and November 2017, PWFC in Spokane helped 342 children under the age of 12. Of those, 204 were sexually assaulted, according to Safford.

Local law enforcement officials say people are surprised to learn that child sex trafficking happens even in smaller communities like Spokane.

Spokane Police Detective Harlan Harden, who investigates sex trafficking, works closely with the local FBI-led Child Exploitation Task Force. Harden said he sees kids firsthand every day, who are desperate for money recruited in the Spokane area. Many have been sexually or physically abused already

Selling kids for sex is a billion-dollar industry, experts say.

“Human trafficking is a renewable resource,” Harden says. “We’ve heard stories of pimps making $5,000 to $6,000 in a day. Which means these (victims) are having sex with 10 or more people in a day.”

Although men and boys are also subjected to sex and labor trafficking, the vast majority of human sex trafficking victims are female, Harden said.

“In some ways we’re social workers with a gun. It’s very challenging. We don’t push ourselves on victims,” he said.“A lot of juveniles we’re seeing lately are involved with gangs.

“They’re these young girls who get caught up with gang members and we work with the gang task force to address the gang problem here.”

Traffickers often target runaways and kids with a history of drug and sex abuse.

Experts estimate that the average age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation for girls is 12 to 14.

Runaways especially vulnerable

One out of every six runaways reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 2014 was likely a victim of sex trafficking, according to the organization’s website. “Traffickers constantly seek out opportunities to engage with and exploit vulnerable youth, and runaways are particularly vulnerable,” the site reads.

Mabel Elsom, a human trafficking specialist with Lutheran Community Services, leadsa countywide task force of local, state and federal enforcement agencies, created in 2012 to address the issue. She works with trafficking victims to provide comprehensive services and assistance, including 24-hour emergency response, food and safe housing, immigration and legal advocacy, physical and mental health treatment and other resources.

While Elsom’s caseload averages about 25 human trafficking victims (both sex trafficking and labor trafficking), those numbers can go as high as 40 to 45 on a monthly basis.

“At any one time I’m usually working with about 10 teens who are victims of sex trafficking,” Elsom said.

“We go to the hospital to meet with them and go over their rights as victims, how the process works, we explain how the medical exam works and what to expect, and we talk to them about their rights in reporting a crime,” said Elsom.

“If a victim is 18 or older, they have a choice of whether to call law enforcement,” she said. “If it’s a teen under 18, parents have to be notified. We may call Child Protective Services as well. If they’re minors, there are no charges filed against them. The awareness is that these are victims, these are kiddos that are being exploited – they are not prostitutes.

“Although they may be charged with other secondary crimes,” she added.

Sometimes she says teens are angry, frustrated, or coming down from drugs when she meets with them.

“There is a lot of denial. You’re not going to meet with someone who is going to be extremely grateful,” Elson said. “Sometimes you get ‘I don’t need your help’ or ‘there’s nothing wrong with me.’ So that’s why building trust is crucial.”

Because sex trafficking is so lucrative, victims typically get brainwashed to believe that the pimp cares about them and is looking out for their welfare, she added.

“I have worked with victims who are being sold 10 to 20 times a night. That’s $1,500 a night,” she said. “One guy was making more than $40,000 a month on just one girl. So they are going to make sure that they brainwash this kiddo, and make sure they tell them that ‘you cannot talk to law enforcement, you can’t trust your family, and you cannot go back home. If you go back home, I’ll hurt your family,’ ” Elsom said.

Threats and intimidation, physical violence and forced drug addiction are all used, she added.

“If that was your income, would you want to let that person go? No you’re going to make sure that you’ve trained them to say whatever they need to say so that you don’t lose your income. And eventually they believe it,” she said.

Elsom said many kids deal with not being accepted and loved, and “this person gives you more acceptance and love than anyone else has ever given you even though it’s a lie … and when you add that component of violence, it’s (understandable). It’s the same cycle as domestic violence … the victim always wanting to please and waiting for the person to love them – which is never going to happen.”

Social service agencies and nonprofit organizations collaborate well in Spokane County, she said. No one agency provides a holistic hub. If she needs a resource in an emergency, having contacts in the community enables her to provide for victims immediately.

Sexual exploitation online

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children operates the CyberTipline, a national centralized reporting system for suspected child sexual exploitation. In 2017, the tipline received more than 10.2 million reports, a number that has been growing each year.

Online enticement of victims covers a broad spectrum of victimization, and occurs on all platforms, experts say. Someone enticing a child online can have a variety of motives and tactics. Often it can involve enticing a child to share sexually explicit images, meeting in person for sexual purposes, engaging the child in a sexual conversation or, in some instances, to sell or trade the child’s sexual images to others.

Paul Farina, with the Internet Crimes Against Children unit in Kootenai County, said victims of online sexual predators are getting younger and younger.

“When I first started this job in 2011, we saw 15 and 16-year-olds that were enticed online by adults, but now we’re starting to see 11 and 12-year-olds being recruited online. That’s huge,” Farina said.

“Victims are getting younger, they’re getting phones at a younger and younger age, and that’s something that our community just doesn’t want to talk about. Nobody wants to talk about child porn. We have more work than what we can do.”

The ICAC program is a national network of 62 coordinated task forces representing more than 4,500 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The program was developed in response to the increasing number of children and teenagers using the Internet, the proliferation of child sexual abuse images available electronically, and heightened online activity by predators seeking unsupervised contact with underage victims.

A sex trafficking case Farina worked on for the past several months resulted in the conviction of a Hayden, Idaho, man charged with five counts of child pornography. Jason McGovern was sentenced last week to 23 years in prison. Farina said McGovern had over 20,000 illegal images on his phone and computers.

In that case, the parents of a girl in New Jersey contacted law enforcement, who tracked McGovern to Hayden and contacted law enforcement there, he said.

“Any time sex offenders are reaching out to children that case kind of rises to the top of the list and we drop what we’re doing to work on that issue,” he added.

Internet electronic service providers like Facebook and Snapchat are bound by federal law to monitor the Internet for suspicious activity. Farina said online apps used by teens are different in most regions of the country and many teens here use KIK, an instant messaging mobile app.

“When they see stuff, they report it … saying this person has uploaded child porn or whatever,” he said.

Farina, who talks regularly to parents of teens, says parents need to learn what their kids are using and really communicate with them.

“We just can’t put our heads in the sand anymore with all these devices. We’ve got to really learn what the kids are using and have to build that trust,” he added. “We go through a graduated driver’s license program before we can drive. But we don’t do anything for our kid’s cell phones. This is just as dangerous as driving a car.

“People need to hear it … and it’s not going away, it’s getting worse. We need to learn how to deal with it. I tell parents that they’ve got to model good behavior. When it comes to putting the phones down in the evening, and have them all in a central location, parents have to model that,” he said.