Sex trafficking is state's new enemy

Our Opinion

The Portland area has a deplorable nationwide reputation for being a major hub for prostitution and child sex trafficking.

The problem is so pervasive that Dan Rather featured the city in a less-than-flattering television special: 'Pornland, Oregon: Child Prostitution in Portland.'

Children anywhere, but especially in Portland and Multnomah County, should not fear being ensnared by the sex industry and subjected to its incredible dangers.

Rather's television show reported something that local law-enforcement officials already knew: Child prostitution is a national problem. But Portland's proximity to the Interstate 5 corridor and the east-west Interstate 84 route sadly makes it fertile ground for people who make money from entrapment and abuse of children. A U.S. Department of Justice study ranked Portland and Seattle among the top 12 hub cities where traffickers recruit teenagers for sex work and then move them around the country.

A natural reaction to that news is usually denial: Many folks may say that sex trafficking is a problem in other, bigger metro areas, but not here.

The Portland area has experienced its share of denial. And that must stop.

It's good that local leaders are moving away from denial and toward effective solutions. As reported last week in the Portland Tribune, Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel is working to establish new programs to attack prostitution and the exploitation of young women.

The initiatives include:

• A $900,000 federal grant announced Thursday by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden that will help establish a shelter for victims of human sex trafficking.

• Another effort, also cosponsored by Wyden, to secure a federal grant of $2.5 million per year for three years to create six safe houses around the country for girls 12 to 18 years old.

• A new Portland police program allows customers of prostitutes to enter a diversion program - or 'john school' - in Gresham, where they will learn about the destructive effects of their behavior.

• A pilot program - proposed by Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman - that would place women seeking to escape their life on the street into private-market units around the city, rather than in one central 'safe house.'

Not all of these initiatives directly target child sex trafficking. But taken together, they can begin to uproot the Portland area's deeply embedded sex industry.

We think that other regional and state leaders should join this effort and jointly battle sex trafficking by employing stepped up, aggressive law enforcement efforts against the criminals who engage in trafficking and expanded social services for the victims of the sex trade industry.

Early this decade, Interstate 5 through Oregon was a well-known pipeline for drugs such as methamphetamine. Then district attorneys, state officials and local law enforcement made meth public enemy No. 1.

The battle against meth is being won. Sex trafficking should be Oregon's next common enemy.

Effective action can reduce sex trafficking - and provide havens for girls and women ensnared by the sex trade. Portland will be a safer community for the efforts.

Yes, it's embarrassing to be known as one of the sex capitals of the United States. Even more important, it is shameful and dangerous that vulnerable girls and young women in our city are having their lives irreparably damaged by those intent on exploiting, and ultimately, destroying them.