South Sound sex trafficking can’t be ignored

The scourge of human trafficking is not confined to the poor regions of Third World or Eastern European countries. It occurs everywhere, even in Thurston County.

Two men arrested in Tumwater are suspected of raping and selling for sex a young woman, 19, and a 15-year-old girl that they met at the Artesian Well park in downtown Olympia. That area is fast becoming a known hangout for runaways, such as these two female victims who formerly resided at Haven House.

In its initial report to the Legislature, the Washington Statewide Coordinating Committee on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children said the selling young girls and boys for sex occurs throughout the state, and is not limited to metropolitan areas.

The committee, convened by Attorney General Bob Ferguson, has conservatively estimated that several hundred children are sexually exploited in Washington annually despite the state having some of the most comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation in the nation. The real number is almost certainly much higher.

The Human Trafficking Resource Center estimates that 100,000 or more underage Americans have been forced into the sex trade in recent years. A State Department study estimated that 17,500 people were trafficked into the United States in 2005 alone.

Around the world, 21 million people are being trafficked at any given time, according to the International Labor Organization.

The Statewide Coordinating Committee, which was formed by the Legislature in 2013, calls on lawmakers to provide more funding to gather more data about the scope of commercially sexually exploited children and the activities of traffickers. That information can inform prevention strategies.

The committee also focused on increased funding for victim services, such as finding housing for victims, medical care and job training. And more funds are needed to expand drug and gang task forces.

Gang activity is on the rise in Thurston County, and all over the state. Criminal gangs have always engaged in the commercial sexual exploitation of children, but the committee’s report shows it is increasing.

Stepping up collaborative efforts between law enforcement, social services, businesses and schools can make exploitation reduction strategies more effective, and better support those escaping from sexual slavery situations. Ofenttimes, the young victims have been abused at home, then run to the streets where they are abused further. Treatment and prevention services must be provided where the potential sex trafficking victims congregate.

Sometimes, friends and family are slow to recognize the warning signs that a child might be involved in sex trafficking. A public education and awareness campaign could address that issue.

Commercial sexual exploitation of children is a horrendous crime that leaves its survivors with “ongoing physical, psychological, emotional and economic damage to its victims, their communities, and the state as a whole.”

State legislators can use the committee’s findings and recommendations to keep more children out of the sex trade and support the recovery of those who have fallen victim despite our best efforts.