ONTARIO — Did you know the average age for a person to get trafficked for sex is 17, and that the majority of that trafficking is done by a partner, spouse or family member? Some people even get tricked into trafficking through job offers or false promises. The number of cases of trafficking in the nation is split 60% to 40% between adults and children, respectively, with women accounting for about 85 to 95% of all cases. And, cases are extremely high for the LGBTQ+ community.
This is just some of the information that is known about sex trafficking, which like all human trafficking, appears to be like an iceberg: What we see and are aware of is very minimal to what lies below the surface: Experts state that sex trafficking is “notoriously underreported.”
Of the 14,597 sex trafficking cases reported to the national hotline in 2019, 132 were in Oregon and 26 were in Idaho, according to data from the Polaris Project, the nonprofit which operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Tri-County Anti-Trafficking Taskforce, a local volunteer-led task force that has been dedicated to stopping all trafficking of humans in Malheur County as well as Payette and Washington counties for the past 8 years, is working on building awareness of what trafficking looks like in order to help stop it, and establishing services for local victims.
A grant obtained last year, allowed the hiring of Kim DeRose, coordinator, for two years. She has been in that position for about eight months now, and has an office inside the Malheur County Justice Court in Ontario. The Malheur County District Attorney’s Office has oversight of her grant-funded position.
And already the task force is seeking a way to make that position more permanent, and will go out for another two-year grant at the beginning of 2022, which could fund the position for 2023-24.
Jane Padgett, community development coordinator at Oregon Department of Human Services hopes by DeRose being in her position, more people will become aware of problems with sex trafficking.
The aim, Padgett said, is to get a solid coalition of members of law enforcement, the community, schools and medical fields to be aware.
“So if they see youth being trafficked, they recognize what it is and connect them with the right resources,” she said.
‘So much human trafficking’
Prior to moving to the Western Treasure Valley from San Diego with her husband, two sons and two dogs, DeRose had worked on a police force in Stockton, California, where there was heavy gang activity. She put her Masters of Forensic Science degree to work there in the law enforcement field, processing evidence and taking pictures of victims. Eventually, this got to be too much for her, she said, adding that she was too empathic to work directly with victims in that manner, which is part of the reason she left police work.
“I saw so much human trafficking, but didn’t know that’s what it was at the time,” she said. “It was astounding what was going on there, such as meth addicts throwing parties at Holiday Inns.”
Looking back now that she’s more aware, DeRose says it was evident.
But Malheur County and the greater region, too, she said, adding that it doesn’t just happen in truck stops or hotels, as many people often think.
DeRose still wants to help victims, but that work will now be focused on helping connect them to services that are available locally or getting them to another area which has something they need, such as nearby Boise and Nampa, or one of about 11 task forces around the state.
‘People know how to manipulate’ the mind
Federal and state laws differ on trafficking as it relates to adults and youth. A federal law passed in 2000 made a felony to get “compensation made from sale of sex services” for children under the age of 18.
With adults, it’s more complicated to prove sex trafficking, according to DeRose.
A person has to either not want to do what they are doing, be tricked into it — such as being hired for a modeling job or massage parlor where a gig or work isn’t available but they can make money stripping or having sex on the side, or be forced, she said.
The latter of these doesn’t have to be an actual imprisonment situation, DeRose said, adding that often times, victims are free to come and go, but are manipulated by fear of being beaten or killed.
“Because the mind is a terrible thing and people know how to manipulate it, and once they start manipulating your mind, you don’t know where reality lies or where the safe spots are,” she said.
Why not just leave?
Some people may ask why a person doesn’t just leave a bad situation.
“They are scared,” DeRose said. “They are terrified.”
For some victims, their abuser is the only person that ever showed them love, gave them a home or it’s the only way they know how to make money — especially those who have been groomed from a younger age.
“That’s the kind of mentality you run into,” she said. “But if you think about it from their perspective, that makes sense: If you’ve never had anything else, you don’t know.”
And people can tell them the “grass looks greener” on the other side, DeRose said, but victims are often in the mindset of thinking change could be a harder road.
“It could look really daunting, I’m sure,” she said.
And that is because oftentimes, leaving a situation safely, means testifying against someone, and they might not want to testify against someone they love or they are terrified of, because they have been lied to or mistreated.
As with drug and alcohol addictions, survivors often become victims again, going “off and on” but leaving their situation, then going back to it because “it’s what they know, it makes sense or it’s quick money,” DeRose said.
The recidivism rate is very high, she said, adding “it can be disheartening.”
Who does it?
It’s not just strangers and people who run illicit businesses, such as massage parlors or sex work. Only 14% of those who called the national hotline were trafficked by strangers, she said.
More often, it is a partner or spouse who forces — often by means of guilt — their significant other to have sex with someone else.
“If you love me, you’ll do it — any number of things that all constitute trafficking, happen between spouses and within families,” DeRose said.
This could be a husband who needs extra money for his drug habit, she said, and it even happens with “single moms with bad drug habits and pretty 16-year-old daughters.”
Additionally, DeRose said, COVID-19 has caused an increase in sex trafficking, with some people exploiting those who are out of work and need to pay bills.
And while it happens more often than not by someone a victim knows, it’s not exclusive to partners, spouses and parents.
“It could be a family friend, aunt or uncle, neighbor, school teacher, bus driver … I don’t think people realize the everyday Joe is the person doing this.”
Men, boys and LGBTQ+ are also victimized
Men and boys are victims, too, DeRose emphasized.
“In fact, some of the most high-risk groups are the LGBTQ+ members. They are 64% more likely to be trafficked,” she said.
On its website this month, the Polaris Project notes that it is Pride Month, and calls for action to advocate for the end of bias and discrimination amongst those. According to the website, there is a direct link between anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and human trafficking.
The Polaris Project states that of the LGBTQ community, “boys and young men are seen as particularly vulnerable to trafficking.”
DeRose says sadly there are not a lot of statistics available, but that entities are just getting to the point where they are collecting good stats, and that is because most of the cases are self-reporting. Therefore, getting actual data on males may be harder.
“There is such a stigma in our society for anything to happen to a male,” DeRose said. “Some people think, ‘How dare they be a victim.’ Then, add to that, you don’t fit into the perfect little square for a male or perfect little square for a female, and because you don’t, you don’t speak up.”
What to watch for
When it comes to trafficking there are noticeable signs, and DeRose aims to do as much training and community outreach as possible so that people become more aware of these.
“We want to go everywhere,” she said.
She did a training for the Malheur Education Service District in February, and would like to help the TCATT board get training at least once a month.
“The first thing to realize is that anybody can be trafficked. It doesn’t matter what your skin color is, doesn’t matter what your gender is, it doesnt matter what your economic or societal status is,” DeRose said. “You can be the richest rich or the lowest low — anybody can be trafficked.”
Some of the more common signs for people who are being trafficked don’t happen all the time, but can include tattoos of items, such as crowns, money bags or little rolls of cash, she said. Also worth noting is if they look malnourished or if there are visible signs of abuse or control, such as a guy holding a girl by her upper arm, she noted. Maybe a person suddenly has two phones. Maybe their social media posts are inappropriate for your age.
DeRose urges people to trust their intuition.
“First of all, how does it make you feel. Does it feel off? If it feels off, there is probably something there. If you see a young girl going into a hotel with an older man, ask yourself, ‘Was it her dad? Was it the middle of the day? Should she be in school? Does she look dressed for the weather (for example, wearing short shorts and halter top when it’s snowing),” she said. “And those probably are situations where something is happening that is not supposed to be.”
Individuals who may be at higher risk for becoming victims of sex trafficking include those who are homeless, runaway youth and people getting into drugs and alcohol.
There are a lot of things to look for and people don’t realize it’s happening in common settings, such as churches, schools or a number of other public places.
“The idea is to get these places knowing, too,” DeRose said. This can include putting up signs. “We want people to feel they have a safe place to go where they are not judged or criticized.”
The thing she wants victims — or people who recognize victims — to know, is that they have an option to get help.
“Anytime, anywhere, anyhow,” DeRose said. “The minute they want help, there will be help for them.