Underage and Underground

Graphic by Jennifer Hornstein
Graphic by Jennifer Hornstein

Central Oregon’s hidden child sex trafficking problem

By Erin Rook, Source Weekly

As tourists flock to Central Oregon for summer adventure, a more sinister migration is happening under the radar. While Portland has received national attention as an alleged hotbed for child sex trafficking, local advocates and law enforcement say that Bend has a growing problem with the sexual exploitation of minors.

Last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a nationwide sting targeting commercial child sex trafficking, arresting 281 pimps and recovering 168 children in 106 cities nationwide, the agency reports. While Operation Cross Country VIII did not cast its net across Central Oregon, advocates say it is only a matter of time before increasing awareness of human trafficking—widely believed to be the fastest growing criminal industry in the world—leads to larger numbers of arrests here.

It is a topic of such rising concern that the City Club of Central Oregon has invited Dennis Morrow, the executive director of Janus Youth Programsin Portland—which runs the only dedicated shelter for victims of child sex trafficking in the state, to address its lurking prevalence at its next forum on Thursday, July 17.

Although the extent of the sex trafficking in Central Oregon still remains shadowy, in the Portland area, it is becoming increasingly clear. A recent report out of Portland State University found that 469 trafficked youth accessed services in the Portland Metro area between 2009 and 2013. The average age of these victims was 15.5 years old. There are likely more who never connect with service providers, says Morrow, but the numbers begin to paint a picture.

While many assume that trafficking is a problem unique to developing nations like India, Vietnam or Thailand, local experts insist it happens in the suburban neighborhoods of cities like Bend and Redmond more often than people think. The most vulnerable are those youth already on the margins of society—runaway and homeless youth, kids living in foster care, transgender teens—but children from well-off homes are not immune.

“When you look at youth that are engaged in trafficking, they are typically coming from a fragmented family dynamic,” explains Megan Sengi, program director atCascade Youth and Family Center, which runs a youth homeless shelter in Bend called The Loft. “Pimps are very well attuned to identifying youth in situations like that.”

Though Sengi doesn’t know if any of the youth currently staying at The Loft have a history of exploitation, she says it has housed victims in the past. The program doesn’t currently include questions about trafficking in its intake process, she adds, but the agency is in the process of learning how best to broach the subject.

“I do not believe the local police department is aware of the potential magnitude of this in our community,” Sengi says. “Because it’s a topic we’re just starting to shed the light on.”

Advocate and author Nita Belles says the local community is much more aware of trafficking than it was when she started the Central Oregon chapter of Oregonians Against Trafficking Humans in 2009.

“Five years ago, when I said ‘human trafficking,’ people would say, ‘You mean when people walk in the street?,'” she recalls.

“We know that there is trafficking here. We know that law enforcement is becoming more proactive in fighting it. We know we’ve had children trafficked both from and to the high desert,” Belles says.

How many children, though, is hard to say.

“The thing about minor sex trafficking is that it is a crime that is constantly on the move,” Belles says. “They keep them on a circuit, and we are part of the circuit.”

Still, there have been arrests, proving that the presence of child sex trafficking in the area is more than myth. In the last year, Bend police have made at least six prostitution arrests, says Lt. Brian Kendall, an undisclosed number of which were minors. He says he remembers one case from the end of last year involved a 17-year-old being pimped out, and another from early this year where an officer noticed a suspicious relationship between an older man and a younger girl.

“Is [child sex trafficking] a daily occurrence here?” Kendall asks. “It could be.”

Though the department does a small sting once a year or so, it simply doesn’t have the resources to delve into the issue further. Child sex trafficking investigations are labor intensive, Kendall says; having a dedicated domestic violence or child crimes detective just isn’t in the cards.

“We’re so short staffed,” Kendall says, adding that the department recently put an increased focus on solving bike thefts because its seen as a “livability issue.” Stated more plainly: child sex trafficking isn’t exactly the department’s top priority.

Kendall says he can’t provide more specific statistics because cases involving child sex trafficking aren’t labeled in a consistent and easily sortable way.

“We need to look at accountability for these things,” he admits, adding that department has made some progress with labeling child abuse cases, but hasn’t addressed child sex trafficking yet.

And he knows it’s a problem. Kendall says that a lack of resources and awareness could lead to a real increase in trafficking in Central Oregon.

“Because Portland and Eugene vice departments are hitting it pretty hard, Bend can be seen as a safe haven,” Kendall says. “It’s not getting less [prevalent], it’s getting more. I’ve been at this for 20 years, and it’s still skyrocketing.”

Though trafficking victims are sometimes arrested in stings, Janus Youth Executive Director Dennis Morrow says that to refer to these youth as prostitutes and to the people who purchase sex with them as Johns (or Janes) paints a rosier-than-reality picture of what these transactions entail.

“It’s rape for pay, because they can’t consent,” Morrow says. “I don’t see this as child prostitution. That implies an element of crime and choice.”

Though some homeless youth may engage in “survival sex” to get by on the streets, Morrow says he primarily works with youth who aren’t profiting from their exploitation.

“In Portland [at Janus] we specifically focus our services on children who are victims, who are almost universally working with a pimp,” Morrow explains.

It’s important, he adds, to keep these populations separate, to reduce recruitment into “the life.” Morrow says it’s not uncommon for homeless youth to be recruited by other kids in shelter.

Over the past year, the organization has seen more than 100 victims—half under the age of 15. Morrow says it’s a pretty typical demographic.

“The prime age of recruitment is 12-14,” Morrow explains. However, because victims may remain “in the life” through adulthood, Janus recently increased the age cap for its shelter from 18 to 21, to accommodate those youth at risk of aging out.

In Portland, Morrow says, more than half of all child sex trafficking is gang-related. Gangs that once trafficked only in drugs are adding humans to the mix because it is more lucrative and lower risk. Though Bend doesn’t have a home-grown gang problem, members from larger cities pass through on “business.” What Bend does have is plenty of middle-aged white men with money—purchasers’ prime demographic.

Jeff Keith, founder of local anti-trafficking organization Guardian Group, further points out that some of Bend’s virtues are actually potentially dangerous ingredients for sex trafficking.

“It’s a vacation spot. It’s a place that people come to,” says Keith. With the I-5 corridor seen as a hotbed for human trafficking, he points out that Highway 97 and other offshoots with increasing traffic may seem like a lower risk route. “I have been told by experts that we’re becoming a hub,” he says.

To combat any sex trafficking that is happening—or may be starting to head this way—local organizations are starting to band together to raise awareness and train local agencies and police departments.

But Keith also recognizes that the challenge with raising awareness is that no one wants to hear that something as dark as child sex trafficking is happening in idyllic Central Oregon.

Keith says that while Guardian Group had success in attracting participants to its Butte Burner fundraising run, other efforts to draw attention to the problem have fallen on mostly deaf ears.

“This is a destination spot for beer, the outdoors and entrepreneurial technology,” Keith says. “No one wants to believe it’s a spot for [child sex trafficking].”

Even so, last September the Guardian Group organized an anti-trafficking training attended by about 40 agencies from around Central Oregon. This fall, the group will host a training for district attorneys.

Child Victims of Sex Trafficking in Oregon

City Club of Central Oregon

July 17, 11:30 am-1 pm. St. Charles Center for Health and Learning. $35.