U.S. authorities have long considered human-trafficking to be a foreign problem, and as a result U.S.-focused efforts against such sexual exploitation have to battle a serious lack of safe shelter for victims.
But local governments in cities such as Portland, Ore., and Seattle have begun to coordinate their responses with nonprofit groups, and Uncle Sam may also get into the game.
"Too many think that sex trafficking is only a problem in foreign countries. But here in the U.S., an estimated 100,000 underage girls — most of them American citizens — are exploited through commercial sex each year," said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, New York Democrat and sponsor of a bill giving block grants to meet needs specific to victims of sex trafficking.
"Yet, nationwide there are only 50 beds to address the needs of those 100,000 victims. This is simply unacceptable. We have a moral obligation to help. These are America's daughters, granddaughters, sisters and nieces," she said.
The Senate is scheduled Thursday to consider its version of that bill, sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat. The House version, also sponsored by Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, is still in committee.
The sex-traffic bills would provide federal funds for shelters, education, and victims' services to Portland and five other locations across the country to be determined.
Shelter and appropriate counseling services are difficult to provide for victims of sex trafficking. If girls are detained on charges related to their work, they acquire a criminal record, but existing domestic-violence shelters, runaway shelters, and other emergency services are reluctant to house victims with such specialized needs.
"What are we supposed to do?" said detective Sgt. Ryan Long, who heads the Seattle Police Department's efforts to fight domestic child exploitation. "We need more options. We have to start somewhere."
A new three-year, $500,000 grant program in Multnomah County, Ore., hopes to provide both immediate help and long-term safe shelter for victims. County officials announced last week that they will be partnering with the local YWCA in a pilot project that will use existing housing to shelter sex-trafficking victims and offer counseling sessions, rather than build a separate facility.
"We have a really deep desire to do something that will work really well for these youth, something that will last beyond grants," said Josslyn Baker, who is heading the program.
The program's more immediate project is a drop-in center, operated by the Portland-area advocacy group Sexual Assault Resource Center, where child sex-traffic victims can stop by for counseling and other needs at a facility that does not require the same level of funding as a secure shelter.
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