The picture on sexual exploitation of Washington's children is hazy and incomplete, according to a report presented Thursday to the Washington Senate Human Services & Corrections Committee.
"The exact number of exploited children is not known, and needs to be better researched," said the Washington Statewide Coordinating Committee on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in its report to the Legislature. "However, the best current evidence suggests that hundreds of children, both girls and boys, are exploited here every year. At least a few of them are as young as age 12 or 13." The Legislature set up this committee in 2013. It is charged with delivering reports this year and in 2015.
The state, said the report, needs to improve its data collection in order to track underage, prostitution-related crimes. But it also needs the funding to do so. The report recommended that local and regional level committees — similar to the statwide committee set up by the Legislature — be created to tackle the problem on the local level. The Washington State Center for Court Research and the Center for Children and Youth Justice are studying how to improve collecting the necessary data.
Only King County has tried to count teen prostitutes in recent years. its last count was in 2008. The county came up with an estimate of 300-500 teen and child prostitutes, which the report claims is an under-estimate. Twenty-two of those young prostitutes were between the ages of 12 and 14. No jurisdiction outside King County haa conducted similar counts.
The report also looked at statewide sex trafficking charges filed from 2008 to 2013. It counted 17 charges of human trafficking, 132 charges of pimping underaged prostitutes, 108 charges of performing sex acts with underaged prostitutes and 176 charges of promoting prostitution without the under-age element. Based on this breakdown, the report concluded that more than half of Washington's sex trafficking charges from 2008 to 2013 involved minors.
In the Yakima area, said the report, a task force affiliated with the Committee on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children observed that "girls repeating as victims without effective responses and intervention from the child welfare or justice systems. Better training of specialized social workers and availability of placement resources and individualized services is needed."
According to the report, a Whatcom County task force "observed that many individuals being advertised online in the Whatcom area do not appear to be local. This may be unsurprising, given the close proximity to the Canadian border. However, data is lacking on the extent of any cross-border exploitation problem."
The report noted that the Internet has made the problem worse. It cited a 2013 University of Arizona study contending that in large American cities 5 percent of men over 18 responded to online sex ads. That Arizona study did not differentiate between ads that featured adults and those which featured minors.
"Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence from the King County Prosecuting Attorney's office indicates that there is a significant demand in the Puget Sound region for online sex ads that feature or appear to feature minors," the report noted, "with such ads regularly attracting many responses from would-be customers."
On Thursday, the Senate Human Services & Corrections Committee members asked mostly clarifying questions. Committee member Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, wanted the Legislature to explore stricter penalties for patrons of prostitutes.