Child prostitution appears to be mushrooming in Seattle, even though its I-5 sister city to the south, Portland, is more notorious for child sex trafficking.
“What I see on the ground is the problem is getting worse,” said Leslie Briner, a social worker who is also associate director of residential services for The Bridge, a nine-bed residential treatment program for teen prostitutes that opened in Seattle last June.
“The age is trending down and the frequency is trending up,” she said. The average age teens get into prostitution is 13.
Indeed, both Seattle and Portland have significant problems, but neither deserves a label as a national hub for underage prostitution, according to law enforcement experts in both cities. Both, though, have struggled with that image.
Dan Rather called Portland “Pornland,” a model city that’s becoming “a major center for child trafficking.” ABC’s World News and Nightline called Portland one of the largest hubs for child sex trafficking in America.
Meanwhile, Seattle has consistently shown the most juveniles rounded up in prostitution crackdowns for three years running now. Despite that, InvestigateWest’s reporting shows that the actual problem in Seattle and Portland may not be any worse than most large cities.
However, the two Northwest cities are better at identifying those juveniles involved. The numbers in the FBI sweeps, for example, reflect more intense efforts to find those juveniles in both cities.
In November 2010, for example, King and Pierce Counties had 23 of the 69 young people rescued nationwide during Operation Cross Country V sweep conducted as part of the FBI’s “Innocence Lost” project. Of those, 16 were in King Co., and seven in Pierce, said Assistant Special-Agent-in-Charge Steven Dean of the Seattle FBI office.
“We had the most for the third year in a row,” he said. “But it’s illogical to say it’s a bigger problem here. It means we’re addressing it better.”
Portland came in second in the nation in the latest sweep with seven juvenile prostitutes recovered. But its law enforcers echoed those in Seattle, saying their ranking as the top spot in the nation for the number of children trafficked is undeserved.
“I giggle at that every time I hear it, to be honest with you. Everybody wants a ranking, everybody wants a number,” said Keith Bickford, a deputy sheriff for Multnomah County who serves as director of the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force. “Is Oregon known across the nation as a place that we have a problem? Absolutely. Oregon has a large runaway youth population that fall prey to sex trafficking… Are we ranked somehow? No.”
Glenn Norling, supervisor special agent at the FBI Portland, said data from nationwide stings are not crime statistics, and serve as poor substitutes. Some task forces work for several days to participate in a sting, for example, while others work a few hours. Some may set aside planned arrests for a sting, looking to make a bigger impact for publicity’s sake.
There’s another reason the number it produced may not be a yardstick for the child sex trafficking industry in America: Concern about tourism and other economic factors have prevented some cities from participating in the Innocence Lost project, the national network of task forces fighting child sex trafficking.
Evan Nicholas, an agent in the Crimes Against Children Unit at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. and the manager of Innocence Lost, said the city he would name as most active for child sex trafficking does not have a task force, though he declined to name it
“It appears as though they have minimal to no problem at all when it comes to this, and that’s not the case at all,” he said.
Yet drawing a clear picture of how Seattle and Portland fit into the overall problem of child sex trafficking in America is a difficult task.
“You will never get the number, the true number of kids involved in child prostitution, because they are such a transient population,” said Nicholas.
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