Both cities have been painted as having extraordinarly bad problems. In fact, they appear to be leaders in tackling the issue, so they have more arrests.
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.
Eight years into its massive crime-fighting effort, Innocence Lost has swelled to 40 task forces, opened 1,000 cases, made 4,000 arrests, and recovered 1,038 victims. But as the project popularizes child sex trafficking as an issue, Innocence Lost shares little data to help frame issue. The locations of task forces are not always public, nor are data showing where arrests are made and children are recovered.
“The reason why we won’t reveal all of our information, particularly the location of the task forces, is because we don’t want the dealers and the pimps to know where we are,” said Nicholas. “Too often we reveal information and then the crooks just adjust.”
It’s also very difficult to compare cities because there’s no consistent methodology for measuring, said Seattle’s Briner.
What’s indisputable, though, is that access to technology and increasing gang involvement are driving more young girls into “the life” in cities, such as Portland and Seattle that attract young people.
Anyone can go on the internet and learn how to “turn a girl out,” the term for inducing a girl to turn tricks, Briner said. Teenage males are also victimized.
“You can now do everything you need to do to turn out and run a girl on an iPhone,” she said. “You don’t even need a computer.”
That, plus the economic downturn, which traditionally drives vice industries, plus the glamorization of the lifestyle, has caused more and younger people to enter prostitution, she said.
In recognition of that, both Seattle and Portland have stepped up their efforts to identify and wrestle with this problem in recent years.
In 2008, for example, Seattle recovered 20 juveniles involved in prostitution, said Lt. Eric Sano of the Seattle Police Dept. Last year, it recovered 80, double the number the year before.
An often-quoted 2008 study by Debra Boyer for the City of Seattle, estimated there were between 300 and 500 juvenile prostitutes working in King County. However, with internet trafficking of girls and boys, Sano said he felt the numbers were higher today. “I think it’s more like 500 to 800 kids today.”
That growth is also one reason Seattle recently opened a residential treatment program to help teen victims recover. The program, operated by YouthCare, is one of only about half a dozen such programs in the country, said Briner, who is consulting on developing a similar program in Portland.
The treatment can take anywhere from a few months to up to two years. With only nine slots, plus an additional two emergency beds at a local shelter, it can’t begin to address the needs Seattle police see on the street, Sano said: “That’s nowhere near enough.”
Sex trafficking of underage prostitutes has been the focus of a flurry of meetings here and in Portland in recent weeks. Legislators in both Oregon and Washington have various bills in the works aimed at this problem.
Several ideas are being proposed in Oregon, ranging from giving police power to arrest people who solicit sex from children without having to prove they knew they were underage to locking minor prostitutes in detention for three days without hearings.
In Olympia, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles of Seattle is planning to file legislation, too, although the details are not settled yet.
One proposal that has been circulating is to make an exception to Washington’s two-party consent laws that would give law enforcement the ability to access a teen prostitute’s cell phone information with only the victim’s consent. Currently, the consent of the alleged pimp is also required, which makes it a moot investigative tool. Washington is one of only a handful of states that require the consent of both parties.
While many advocates welcome the attention to a problem that has been in the shadows, too long, they also urged caution.
“We often see poor policies put in place, not only in reaction to sensational trends like this, but also when budgets are tight,” said Mark McKechnie, executive director of the Juvenile Rights Project, a legal project representing foster and delinquent children in Oregon.
McKechnie compares the current rush of political activity to a similar, harried response to methamphetamine in 2005, an effort that met with mixed results.
“It seems there was a rush to do something and then later you realize the problem was overblown and some of the things put in place actually backfired,” he said. “A lot of times things that get put into place quickly are hard to undo.”
InvestigateWest is a nonprofit investigative journalism center based in Seattle. For information on how you can support independent investigative reporting for the common good, go to invw.org.