Washington is failing to aid child sex-trafficking victims

A 2020 law mandated the support of two new ‘Safe Harbor’ centers where kids could get treatment — but the state hasn’t made this happen.

Jay Benke poses for a portrait near her home in Gresham, Oregon

Jay Benke, a survivor of child sex trafficking and a co-founder of the Northwest Survivor Alliance, at her home in Gresham, Oregon, on Thursday, July 20, 2023. (Moriah Ratner/InvestigateWest)

Washington state’s “Safe Harbor” law was supposed to address child sex trafficking in two ways.

First, it would ensure that kids who are commercially sexually exploited are not charged as criminals. Second, it would create two receiving centers, one on the west side and one on the east side of the Cascade Mountains, where kids could get the treatment they need. 

The Legislature passed the law unanimously in 2020, with lawmakers and advocates celebrating the state’s trauma-informed approach to serving trafficking victims.    

But three years later, Washington’s Safe Harbor law is failing to live up to its promise. Though trafficked children aren’t being arrested, they also aren’t going to treatment centers. 

Even though the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families allocated $500,000 for each receiving center, neither center is operating. Legislative restrictions on which organizations can run the centers have made few providers eligible to apply — and those that are eligible often lack the resources to do so. Daybreak Youth Services in Spokane was the only provider to open a center, but it shut down after operating for less than a year amid allegations of sexual misconduct between Daybreak staff and teenage clients.

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest.

Washington’s Safe Harbor law mirrors state laws around the country that prohibit the prosecution of kids under 18 for prostitution offenses. But some anti-trafficking advocates fear that without adequately funded services providing alternatives to the juvenile justice system, the Safe Harbor law could backfire, leaving kids with fewer avenues to escape their traffickers and little incentive to get help. 

“I’m really frustrated over the whole center situation,” said Jay Benke, a sex trafficking survivor who advocates for Safe Harbor laws in the Pacific Northwest. “It seems like a great next step, and then to see it fail so miserably in Washington — it’s disheartening.”

Children continue to be trafficked in Washington every day. An estimated 300 to 400 minors are commercially exploited for sex each year in King County alone, according to a 2019 study commissioned by StolenYouth, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization. The study analyzed data and interviews from service providers, task forces, law enforcement, criminal justice and public entities.

Meanwhile, DCYF has for years now been sitting on state funding set aside for the receiving centers. Legislators who supported the bill fear an ongoing risk that unused funding will be allocated elsewhere, said Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, the bill’s primary sponsor.   

“My worry as a legislator is, often if you have money and it doesn’t get spent, it gets swept,” Orwall said. “We need to make sure those dollars connect to services before they’re moved or used for something else.”

“I’m really frustrated over the whole center situation,” said Benke. “It seems like a great next step, and then to see it fail so miserably in Washington — it’s disheartening.” (Moriah Ratner/InvestigateWest)

Safe Harbor’s rocky start in Washington exposes a key question that state actors are still struggling to answer: “If we’re not arresting kids, great — but then what?” Benke said.  

‘These are victims’

In the mid-1990s, Benke was 16 and homeless in Seattle. One day, as she broke down sobbing on the street, she remembers an older man approaching her and offering to let her sleep on his futon. She followed him to his studio apartment, where he introduced her to two friends — the men who later became her traffickers. 

They paired her with other girls, who were often in the foster care system, and dragged them from neighborhood to neighborhood looking for sex buyers. Her clients were sometimes violent, but she had few alternatives; if she didn’t meet her quota, her traffickers beat her, she said. 

When the two men decided to bring her to Las Vegas, police in Salt Lake City arrested them on the way. One of her traffickers took a plea deal to avoid more jail time, pleading guilty to attempted aggravated exploitation of a prostitute and attempted money laundering, according to the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office. Benke, charged with aggravated money laundering, pimping and pandering, was detained for more than a month as she awaited her court hearings before also taking a plea deal, according to documentation Benke kept from the time. 

Now, as co-founder of the Sex Trade Survivor Caucus, a survivor-led organization that unites people involved in the sex trade, Benke supports the passage and implementation of Safe Harbor laws in Washington and Oregon.

“I think every single state needs Safe Harbor,” Benke said. “It sets a bare minimum standard that we recognize that children aren’t — pardon my language — fast-ass kids who are just trying to be grown. That these are victims.”   

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have passed Safe Harbor laws that, at minimum, prohibit the criminalization of child trafficking victims for prostitution offenses, according to Shared Hope International, a nonprofit organization that advocates for policy change to eradicate child sex trafficking.

The laws have had the most success in states with robust networks of survivor-led community services, as opposed to Washington’s law that provides for just two receiving centers, said Sarah Bendtsen Diédhiou, Shared Hope’s director of policy strategy. For example, Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law, which took effect in 2014, provides for ​​11 regional navigators, including two navigators within tribal regions, who connect youths with services and housing. 

“By contrast, to have only two receiving centers or two points of contact for the whole state of Washington is problematic,” Diédhiou said. “It’s an ​​enormous task. I can’t think of a single nonprofit that would think, ‘Oh yeah, we have capacity’ — even with some of the appropriations that would come from legislators — to serve essentially half the state.”  


Receiving center woes

Washington’s Safe Harbor law says the receiving centers would begin providing services by Jan. 1, 2021. But as DCYF waits for providers to step up to run the centers, launching two successful programs still remains months, if not years, in the future. 

On the east side of the Cascades, Daybreak Youth Services opened a receiving center in Spokane in March 2022. The center operated on and off until June 2023, serving a total of 21 kids. It provided a mental health and substance-use disorder assessment for trafficked kids in the first 72 hours, and up to 30 days of trauma-focused therapy. 

Daybreak’s center was short-lived. Following the organization’s failure to cooperate with a Washington State Department of Health investigation into allegations that staff engaged in sexual misconduct with teenage patients, the department suspended the licenses for Daybreak facilities in Spokane and outside of Vancouver at the end of May. The department has since accused a Spokane counselor of crossing professional boundaries with several clients, including sexual contact.  

Returning to square one, DCYF in August posted a request for applications seeking a new agency to run the east side center. 

On the west side of the Cascades, no agency has ever submitted a proposal to run the program, which greatly concerns anti-trafficking advocates. Kids are instead being sent to hospitals, medical clinics and youth services providers, but these facilities often lack the resources and capacity to meet the needs of trafficked children.

“There is very, very limited shelter space for youth of any victimization. So without having a location on the west side, or a working temporary plan, it’s been challenging,” said Jeri Moomaw, founder and executive director of Indigenous- and survivor-led Washington nonprofit Innovations Human Trafficking Collaborative

Organizations that work with children haven’t applied to run the west side center for two main reasons, an informal survey by a King County task force found. First, they believed the contract doesn’t provide enough funding. Though the $500,000 administered by DCYF for each center provides substantial support, Diédhiou noted that the financial and administrative burden of running a center is still too great for many organizations to handle. 

Second, many service organizations are not eligible to apply because they aren’t licensed as a behavioral health agency through the Department of Health, as the Safe Harbor law requires. In addition to proper licensing, agencies must also have available space — the law requires the centers to use existing facilities that don’t require new construction. 

In King County, “virtually no agencies” meet these requirements, said Leslie Briner, a consultant who provides training for service providers in responding to human trafficking and who was involved in the passage of Washington’s Safe Harbor law. “They made a requirement that nobody on the west side of the state meets who is willing to do this project,” Briner said.

This fall, Orwall, the legislator who sponsored the bill, plans to meet with potential agencies that could run the centers. She has had preliminary conversations with Sea Mar Community Health Centers about using an available facility in Bellingham.

The line of consent

Benke, like many teenagers who are trafficked, saw her situation as a choice. It took 20 years and countless therapy sessions for her to even recognize herself as a victim. 

“I was charged as a perpetrator. The mental effect that that had on me, the impact that it had on my life, was terrible,” she said. “Even though I was abducted and trafficked, I still thought that it was my fault.” 

The emotional and psychological manipulation by her traffickers meant the option to escape never crossed her mind. This illusion of choice, along with fear of retaliation and issues like substance use that cause victims to be physically dependent on their traffickers, often makes convincing kids to get help an uphill battle.

For many kids, the appeal of getting treatment cannot compete with the pull of their traffickers, said Audrey Baedke, co-founder of Real Escape from the Sex Trade, which serves trafficking victims in King County. “Traffickers not only provide their victims with glamorous clothing and beauty, they provide excitement, affirmation, emotional care, and bond in a way that is exceptionally powerful,” Baedke said.

Yet Washington’s Safe Harbor receiving centers are voluntary for children, allowing them to walk away from treatment if they don’t wish to be there. State employees, service providers and trafficking survivors continue to debate this voluntary component of the Safe Harbor law, disagreeing about whether requiring children to get treatment would be more helpful or harmful for victims. 

Those in favor of mandatory treatment argue that kids under the influence of their traffickers are not able to make decisions in their own best interest until they are first removed from their trafficking situation. Those against it say kids whose trauma is rooted in a loss of autonomy will not benefit from treatment that involves locking them in a facility against their will.   

The bar to placing individuals into a secure setting involuntarily in Washington is “astronomically high,” Briner said. The state’s age of consent for mental health treatment is 13, giving teenagers the autonomy to refuse care in many instances and putting Washington among just a handful of states with an age of consent below 14. 

Though a state law passed in 2019 enables caregivers and medical providers to admit teens to inpatient mental health and substance-use facilities without their consent in certain cases, Orwall said the state is still trying to figure out how the law applies to receiving centers.  

Robin Miller, a trafficking survivor who serves commercially sexually exploited children in Clark County, has been frustrated by her inability to get clients into treatment. Before Daybreak’s license was suspended, Miller thought about referring one client to the receiving center, but decided against it. 

“It’s in Spokane, five hours away from her community and home and people who care for her,” Miller said. “It would be silly to send her there because if she wants to leave, she can leave.”

But Cameron Norton, DCYF program manager for missing and exploited youth, said detaining children who don’t have criminal charges in treatment facilities is against state policy. 

“We’re not dragging young people into a program against their will, and then having them maybe fight to get out because they don’t want to be there. That’s not what the program was ever equipped to handle,” Norton said.

States that utilize mandatory court-ordered treatment programs as part of their Safe Harbor laws have found limited success, added Diédhiou with Shared Hope International. “What we’ve seen is that outcomes don’t tend to be better for kids who are forced to engage in services, and in fact they tend to be worse,” she said.  

Instead of sending kids to treatment unwillingly, Diédhiou thinks states should designate more funding for law enforcement and service providers to work collaboratively to more effectively encourage kids to get help. 

As legislators and DCYF scramble to implement Safe Harbor in Washington, Benke keeps looking forward. She envisions a comprehensive approach to trafficking that goes beyond Safe Harbor, including more trauma-informed training for law enforcement and education for kids about what trafficking looks like. 

“Protecting children and youth who have been trafficked from being incarcerated is a very bare-minimum low bar,” Benke said. “No matter what your beliefs are — Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, no matter what it is — this is the baseline. And then we build.”

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Reporter Kelsey Turner can be reached at kelsey@invw.org.

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