Human trafficking in local spotlight

This graphic shows Oregon's human trafficking statistics for 2017, as reported on National Human Trafficking Hotline's website.

WESTERN TREASURE VALLEY — Human trafficking isn’t just a big-city problem, it’s an issue here, too. That’s the greater message local agencies want the community to hear.

To recognize human trafficking happenings locally, individuals need not look far. Last December, law enforcement agencies — for the first time — conducted a week-long sting operation which resulted in several arrests.

At the time, Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe said the sex trafficking sting resembled more of a prostitution sting, because many people aren’t aware when they are being trafficked. The issue of human trafficking, he said, is still prevalent in the area.

“I once had contact with a couple of young girls ages fifteen and sixteen, who we suspected were victims. But they would not provide enough information to further the investigation, which was heartbreaking.”

Finding the numbers

Due to the complexity of identifying victims and area efforts just getting started to do so, local statistics relating to human trafficking are somewhat nonexistent. Even at a state level data is scarce, said Amanda Monaco, trafficking intervention coordinator with the Oregon Department of Justice.

“We don’t have great numbers yet, we are working on that,” she said in a phone interview.

Limited data, Monaco added, can be attributed to the fact that the issue is on the outskirts and remains hidden. What statistics are available are collected via phone calls, email and webforms culled by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

This year, 168 calls from Oregon victims, or people who thought they knew a victim, were made to a national hotline. There also were 33 human trafficking cases reported. Of those, 22 victims were trafficked for sex, five for labor, and four for both sex and labor. Less than three of those cases went unidentified.

In Idaho, six human trafficking cases have been reported in 2017. Half of these were adults, the other half were minors. Five of the victims were females.

In the nation altogether, 4,460 cases were reported in 2017.

Often forced labor

Human trafficking is often referred to as modern-day slavery. It entails the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or obtaining of a person by way of threat, force, fraud, deception or coercion. It’s also the act of receiving or giving unlawful payments or benefits to get consent of a person having control over another person for a specific purpose, as defined by the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Oftentimes when trafficking is discussed, most people think of sex trafficking, and while it’s the most prevalent form, there is more to it. This includes compelled labor, said Charlee Clarke, Malheur County District Attorney’s victim advocate and volunteer coordinator.

With nearly two years under her belt with the DA’s office, Clarke said, she has witnessed both forms of trafficking.

Local agencies band together

“Everybody always thinks it doesn’t happen here, but unfortunately that’s not true,” Clarke said.

The geography of Malheur County plays a huge role: As the largest county in Oregon, all of the major roadways – including Interstate 84, and U.S. highways 95 and 20/26 – intersect in the area. That, Clarke said, makes the local area a prime location for trafficking.

To combat local human trafficking, a number of agencies came together to form the Tri-County Against Trafficking task force.

The collaborative task force is made up multiple organizations, including local law enforcement, mental health specialists, Department of Human Services, victims advocates and housing agencies.

Service providers and community partners are tasked with bringing awareness to their community, identifying victims and building a crisis and long-term response plan for victims of trafficking, Monaco said.

Early last year, individuals on the tri-county task force were able to participate in a training that really put the situation into perspective.

Ontario Police Chief Cal Kunz said, during the training detectives from Portland who led the training, opened a false account on a known website in the Treasure Valley where people solicit prostitution.

“There was a ding every time someone tried to solicit prostitution from that site. Throughout the course we kept hearing a ding, ding and ding,” Kunz said. “As law enforcement we know it exists, but to actually have that audible ding throughout the presentation, for many people, was eye-opening.”

The great feature about the task force, Kunz said, is that we everyone is tackling the issue with each organization bringing what they have to the table.

“This is a community problem, and by working together, we are being more effective,” he added.

Monaco applauded the task force for their efforts, especially given the resources utilized on both sides of the river to tackle human trafficking.

Identifying victims

Most victims don’t self-identify as one, Monaco said, largely because they don’t know what trafficking is. That can be dangerous as victims may fall through the gaps, she said.

One of the most important tasks at hand is identifying victims, she said. To do this, there are many red flags to watch for.

Even when victims are identified, it’s another task to get them to speak up due to emotional and mental abuse, Wolfe said.

“They are controlled and manipulated to the effect that even when they have contact with others who can help, they are very hesitant to report or be forthcoming with information for fear of retaliation,” Wolfe said.

Given that human trafficking can oftentimes be confused with domestic violence because of the same properties and similarities, such as emotional abuse, Clarke said, it’s difficult to say how many of her clients may be trafficking victims.

What she can note, she said, is that 60 to 70 percent of the victims she works with are at risk of being trafficked.

For Kunz, it’s especially alarming to think minors in the community are possible targets for traffickers, especially when some traffickers promise to take minors on a free trip to big cities — an offer which may be the first signs of a trafficker grooming an individual.

To keep traffickers and solicitors on their feet, Wolfe and Kunz both said, stings will continue to be conducted.

“I’m fine with those folks knowing we will be doing more, so that when they read these ads they might think ‘Well, maybe this could be the police,’ because it just might be,” Kunz said. “There are only victims because there are traffickers and there are only traffickers, because there is a demand and we will continue to aggressively fight.”

Tanya Bañuelos is a news reporter at The Argus Observer. She can be reached at (541) 823-4811 or by emailing tanyab@argusobserver.com. To comment on this story, go to www.argusobserver.com.

Load comments