Portland, Ore., is widely featured as a young, green, hip city; it also has gained a reputation as a national hub for child sex trafficking.
State police report encountering three to five trafficking victims a week. Although the Sexual Assault Resource Center, an advocacy group that offers services to Portland-area victims, estimates that it handled 75 cases in 2009, it also says that for every girl in its system 10 more are still being exploited.
“I just believe with my whole heart that people across the community would be appalled if they knew what was going on,” said Sgt. Mike Geiger, who heads Portland’s sexual assault detail.
Portland’s legal commercial sex industry is the biggest per capita in the country, according to a report by researchers at Willamette Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather once called the city “Pornland.” The city has more strip clubs per capita than glittery Las Vegas, and a tolerant attitude toward sex, both legal and illegal.
Combining those facts, a demand for sex workers, the city’s geography that provides easy access for traffickers, and its reputation as a progressive youth-oriented community attracting runaways creates a toxic brew rivaling the notorious red-light district of Amsterdam.
“It’s nonstop. It’s every day,” said Sgt. Doug Justus of the Portland Police Department’s vice squad.
Victims of domestic minor sex trafficking have been picked up in every major city in the country and in many rural areas as well. Those “walking the track” on Portland’s 82nd Avenue are often children exploited in their hometown.
Linda Smith, president of Shared Hope International, a Vancouver, Wash.-based advocacy group, calls Portland a “mecca” for underage trafficking. Of the domestic minors trafficked every year in the U.S. — the FBI estimates 300,000, the majority being runaway or “throwaway” children — hundreds are being sexually exploited in a city of 600,000.
Recent FBI stings gave Portland its much-disputed rating as second in the U.S. for domestic minor sex trafficking.
Of the 52 children rescued from 36 cities in the FBI’s Operation Cross Country IV in October, four were from Portland. Portland participated in the sting for only one night; the stings in the other 35 cities lasted several days. Operation Cross Country III, in February 2009, rescued seven underage girls in Portland, out of 48 total minors rescued. The only city with more underage victims rescued in either sting was Seattle.
Far from dismissing the ranking because of the sting’s brief nature, researchers at Willamette’s human rights clinic estimated in a report released July 12 that Portland’s trafficking rate may be even higher.
“It is possible that Portland in fact ranks higher on the list for trafficking but because its participation in the sting lasted only one night, this cannot be confirmed,” it said.
“If you look back about 16 months, I was one of those people who thought it went on elsewhere,” said City Commissioner Dan Saltzman. “I think what we’re seeing is an increase of trafficking in Portland, but it comes with an awareness that this is happening in our own city, and not Eastern Europe or Asia.”
Portland’s legal commercial sex trade, tolerant attitude and lack of zoning laws make the city an origin and a destination for sex traffickers.
While Seattle has four strip clubs, and Dallas, another trafficking hot spot, has three, Portland has more than 50 all-nude strip clubs within city limits. One directory lists 40 erotic dance clubs, 47 all-nude strip clubs, 35 adult businesses and 21 lingerie modeling shops.
Many of these, though legal, are also fronts for underage exploitation. Shared Hope estimates that the average age of minors used as prostitutes in the U.S. is 13.
“More and more, the people looking to buy sex are looking for younger and younger kids,” said Janice Crouse, president of Concerned Women for America.
Elesia Lopez is a survivor of the child sex-trafficking system in Portland.
Her mother was a prostitute who ran a “massage parlor,” a front for illegal sex trade. At Elesia’s 13th birthday party, her mother sold her to a man for $5,000 to feed a drug habit. Elesia was given to the man as his personal sex slave.
“He took what he thought he owned and raped me multiple times,” Miss Lopez said.
She escaped, pregnant and scared. She gave up her baby for adoption and spent time in foster care before running away again. This time she was on the streets, and after eight months at a shelter for the homeless, she was recruited by her first pimp.
They traveled along the West Coast corridor, with her pimp making a rich profit off of her in Anaheim, Calif., Portland and Seattle. She wanted to escape, but she knew he would kill her if she left.
When she became pregnant again at 15, with twins, she knew she had to escape. After running again, she was stopped by a police officer who asked her what she was doing on the street.
“I really don’t know what I’m doing,” she told him.
It was a turning point in her life: She had grown up in a world where it was normal to be a prostitute or a pimp, but she finally realized that she had to try to leave it behind forever.
“I had to get to that point where I was pregnant and I didn’t want my baby to die — this was another human life,” she said.
The policeman helped get her case to court, but without secure shelter, she was still on her own. One night during the trial, her pimp found her and beat her with a baseball bat. She was 6½ months pregnant. One of her babies died; the other was born three weeks later.
Her pimp was caught and convicted, and Miss Lopez left the world of prostitution. Today she is an advocate for the Sexual Assault Resource Center, where she helps rescue girls from the streets.
“God works good out of all of this,” she said.
Stopping child sex trafficking is particularly difficult in Portland.
The port city’s easy access from two major highways makes it an obvious hub for the Interstate 5 corridor, a common trafficking route that stretches from California to Washington state. This leads traffickers to Portland’s many homeless children and runaways, one-fourth to one-third of whom are solicited by pimps within 48 hours of being on the street. Underage victims often are listed online, making them vulnerable to an even wider market.
Washington state’s stronger laws and stricter penalties have forced many pimps from the Seattle area into Portland as well, but with only two vice detectives, the Portland Police Department’s ability to crack down is limited.
Sgt. Justus said the tiny size of the force is a serious problem. Seattle has two shifts of four vice detectives each, and cities such as Las Vegas have far more. Although city government has become aware of the deficiency, nothing has been done to strengthen police department’s vice squad.
The most prohibitive factor is the lack of secure shelters for victims. Far from being unique to Portland, the deficiency is nationwide. Fewer than 100 shelter beds are available in the U.S. for trafficking victims, and most other facilities are not appropriate to their needs.
Like Elesia, children remain in danger during trials — if they stay on the radar long enough to reach that point. Many run back to the street or are found by their pimps.
“My evidence runs away,” Sgt. Geiger said.
These children, he said, often immediately re-enter the business. Sgt. Geiger, Mr. Saltzman and others in Portland are formulating a plan for a shelter and doing what they can to stop the cycle.
A pilot program is under way in Portland, where Multnomah County organizations will experiment with providing for victims’ rent in existing housing and offering the specific counseling services that victims of trafficking need.
The overwhelming input from these teens is that they need healing as victims instead of treatment as the criminals they have been told they are.
“Their bodies may be grown up, they may be grown up in some ways because they understand things they shouldn’t,” Sgt. Geiger said, “but what I hear screaming out to me is, these are children.”
• Michal Elseth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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