Slavery in the Shadows
A teenage girl meets a guy in his mid-twenties. He drives an Audi, takes her to a party and soon, they’re dating. Then, what could be the start to a sweet love story takes a dark turn.
“In the case of this girl, it starts to get violent. And she starts doing drugs to cope with this nightmare she’s found herself in.” That’s how Aaron Tilbury, founder of the Jonah Project, begins the story of a now 19-year-old woman currently in the organization’s care.
When he can’t make the payment on his Audi, the woman’s boyfriend persuades her to help him out—by selling her body. Now that she’s using drugs and having sex for money, she’s a criminal. That becomes his weapon against her. When she tries to leave, he threatens to tell her family what she’s done.
“She begins to believe this stuff and she can’t tell anybody. The shame and the guilt at this point, especially in this society—she’ll begin to tell herself she can figure a way out,” Tilbury says.
Sex trafficking, a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud or coercion, particularly of underage victims, operates in the shadows of every U.S. state and around the world. Despite a wealth of figures presented by anti-trafficking organizations, accurate numbers do not exist for the size of the problem locally or globally. The national hotline for victims of sex and labor trafficking, Polaris reports that of more than 31,000 cases it’s received over the last decade, more than 77 percent involved sex trafficking.
Not all survivors choose to report the crime. What seems like a simple choice—to cooperate with law enforcement—may, in fact, be quite complicated for survivors of sex trafficking.
“‘If you ever turn me in, I’ll find you and I’ll kill you and I’ll kill your family’—they’ve heard this over and over and over again,” says Mark Kadel, former executive director at World Relief Spokane and volunteer director for the Coalition to Abolish Human Trafficking for the Inland Northwest.
“A lot of times, they love that person. They don’t want to see them get in trouble and they don’t want that person to know that they are hurt by their behavior,” says Erin Williams Hueter, director of Victim Advocacy and Education at Lutheran Community Services Northwest (LCSNW).
When a victim finally finds herself in a safe place, she often still fears retribution from her trafficker—better known as a pimp—and others involved in her trafficking—and she may fear criminal charges herself.
“Investigations take a long time and there are no guarantees about arrests or prison time,” Williams Hueter says. “We have to trust survivors to know what’s going to be best for them. So, a lot of what we do is help them plan for their safety to help them feel empowered.”
Kadel says women or girls fleeing a trafficker sometimes simply disappear. They may leave the area to flee their abuser. It’s also common for victims to return to their abuser—sometimes over and over again.
“Every single time, their pimp’s going to come in with roses and try to get them to go back to them,” he says. While there’s a chance an advocate will hear from her again, there’s no guarantee.
In Spokane, sex trafficking victims are most commonly young women, addicted to drugs and sometimes involved in criminal activity. That means when people encounter a victim in need of help, they may judge her rather than recognize that she needs help.
“Everybody is passionate about crime victims until they meet the person that’s at the center of that. They often have flaws and have made mistakes,” Williams Hueter says. “I think we need to believe survivors when they come forward.”
Likewise, victims often do not, themselves, realize they are being trafficked.
“A lot of young people hear the term ‘human trafficking’ and immediately rule themselves out because a lot of the imagery that’s out there is so sensationalized and doesn’t feel like their experience,” she says.
Pressure to Perform
“People have a very strong emotional reaction when they hear about the problem of human trafficking,” Williams Heuter says. “Frankly, I wish all of our crime victims had such a high level of community support.”
The public’s interest in hearing survivors’ stories can result in undue pressure to relive painful memories too soon and without the support of a therapist, resulting in new trauma.
“They’re often really vulnerable after what they’ve experienced and need time to heal,” she says.
Tilbury says girls and women recently removed from a trafficking situation may not immediately understand they have the freedom to say “no.”
“When we go from a pimp to a program director, we’re still talking about a performance-based lifestyle,” he says. “The whole idea that they’re in a house with a group of girls and then they’ve got this dominant guy who’s going to tell them what to do —,” he says, referring to a common model for victim recovery programs. “They do literally trot these young ladies out to an event to share their testimony, and then people cry and then they write a check.”
Along with law enforcement agencies at every level, several local nonprofit organizations offer help for sex trafficking victims. But not all organizations employ staff trained to provide legal help, counseling, drug treatment, housing placement and other necessary services. Kadel says landing in the care of an ill-equipped organization can place victims at risk during what should be their recovery process.
“Unless you’re aware of some of the push-and-pull factors of getting them out of the trade, so to speak, then they’re very susceptible to going back,” he says.
No dedicated housing for sex trafficking victims exists in the Spokane area. Locally, underage survivors may be placed in foster care or at transitional housing facilities like Crosswalk Teen Shelter. Adult survivors often find housing at transitional housing facilities.
Two faith-based organizations, the Jonah Project and HRC Ministries, have emerged in the past two years with a shared goal of providing safe housing for survivors.
The Jonah Project provides housing for sex trafficking victims either with local families or connects them with dedicated facilities in other states. To get out and stay out of a trafficking situation, says Tilbury, a change of scenery can yield immediate safety and the opportunity for a fresh start.
“The idea of her staying in Spokane—she could just be going on the bus to Rosauer’s to get her EBT card, she could run into her dealer,” he says. “And he now knows that she’s giving information to the police.”
HRC Ministries was established just two years ago and soon after, it opened a home called Freedom House for adult female trafficking victims. Now, the home is closed, though the organization still cares for several sex trafficking survivors.
“We realized that this was a much bigger issue than what we thought it was. So, we’ve had to shut down our program and come up with an actual healthy program,” says executive director Caleb Altmeyer. The new iteration of HRC Ministry’s housing program is more ministry than nonprofit organization, he says, leading girls through Bible studies and “classes,” and taking them to church.
Kilbury, who helped HRC Ministries launch Freedom House, says HRC Ministries caused “very negligent damage” to some of the women housed there. One woman is now receiving housing and other assistance from the Jonah Project.
“They took her off her schizophrenia medication and delivered her from demons,” Tilbury says. Altmeyer says a group of people does come in and pray with “the girls”—all of whom are adults—but that the woman’s choice to stop taking her medication was her own.
He points to another circumstance where he believes prayer did heal a survivor. “One of the girls started having crazy manifestations so they prayed over her and whether a demon left her or not, she’s doing a lot better.”
The Perfect Business Model
Most often, sex trafficking is tied to local gang activity, says Christian Parker, Supervisor and Special Agent at the FBI’s Spokane office. Traffickers target teenage girls who appear vulnerable at places like the train station, bus station or juvenile detention centers with promises of a place to stay, drugs or money.
“These perpetrators are very good at what they do,” Parker says. The local FBI leads a Spokane Regional Safe Streets Task Force—which counts among its members representatives from the SPD, Sheriff’s office, Washington State Patrol and other state and federal agencies—to coordinate efforts to curtail gang activity.
The FBI and Spokane Police Department work closely to combat sex trafficking in Spokane with a focus on underage girls. FBI-led Child Exploitation Task Forces around the country, including in Spokane, specifically target sex traffickers.
“We’re casting a wider net, as often these victims are transported from one city to another,” Parker says.
Spokane Police Detective Harlan Harden says intense demand drives the industry. But, he isn’t sure the clients—called johns—always know the women are underage or being forced to have sex.
“These ads online, they want you to believe that she’s earning the money,” he says. “It’s just not the reality. These girls are on drugs and they don’t even realize what’s going on half the time.”
Thirteen men were arrested in Spokane last July after responding to a Craigslist post advertising sex with children in exchange for gifts. More than a thousand men responded to the post, Sgt. Carlos Rodriguez, who posted the ad, told the Seattle Times.
“If you take the moral component out of it, it’s a perfect business model. It’s all about money,” Harden says. Sex trafficking convictions carry fewer legal penalties than drug trafficking. And unlike drugs, he says bluntly, the “supply”—vulnerable girls—is a renewable resource that’s easier to obtain that drugs.
For Harden, the solution lies in dissuading men from buying sex. “If there’s no profit in it, there are no pimps. If there’s no profit, it ends immediately.”
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