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'All kids are priceless'

Project aims to transform lives of sex trafficking victims


“I was just raped in back of a porn store,” the caller pleaded. “What should I do?”

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: MEGAN HENSON - Kids are helping Austin Burres and Cassie Eichenberger get across the message about the value of the lives of girls and boys. From left are Isaiah McMahon, Amanda Howell and Isabella McMahonThis is shocking, but such calls have been far too frequent for Cassie Eichenberger and Austin Burres. They may be young, but when it comes to helping victims of sex trafficking they have been around a long time. They have seen a lot, but still are never numb to the realities youth face as slaves in the world of sex trafficking in our community.

The two young social workers have been working with such victims for 10 years, and they have found that one crucial step is usually missing when it comes to leading them out of their lives of despair: a place where they can live and prepare for a new kind of life, one with a real future.

“There has been a hole,” Eichenberger said. “That is why we started this project. There has been a lack of appropriate housing. We can only give a kid so much counseling. They aren’t prepared for living with a foster family; they’re not prepared for the trauma they will face when they try to start a new life. And a child victim should not have to go to jail.

“We ‘rescue’ them, but then where do they go?”

Burres provides an answer: “They can be re-integrated into the community instead of going back to where the trafficking is a perpetual cycle.”

by: VERN UYETAKE - Despite their youth, Austin Burres, left, and Cassie Eichenberger are veterans when it comes to helping victims of sex trafficking. That is why Eichenberger and Burres have been planning A Village for One. It will consist of one home for girls, one home for boys and a holistic care center that can meet their physical, mental and spiritual needs. Their first step is to raise $400,000 to buy several acres of land in Clackamas County on which to build the village, and they are making good progress.

Pat Cahill, the owner of local Godfather’s Pizza franchises, has generously offered to donate 25 percent of all sales on Saturday, April 19, dine in or take out, at his Clackamas location, 14682 S.E. Sunnyside Road, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Other local businesses, such as Rock Creek Country Club, have donated raffle items, and Mystique Fancy Faces will be donating free face painting from 5 to 7 p.m. Cahill also has committed to donating pizzas on a monthly basis to the Sexual Assault Resource Center open-house night, which is feeding a lot of local youth who have been victims. Compassionate people such as Cahill are open to Eichenberger and Burres’ message that “all kids are priceless.”

Eichenberger and Burres are working with math construction students at the Clackamas Academy of Industrial Sciences in Oregon City to produce designs of what the future therapeutic home would look like. They also are members of the Clackamas CSEC Coalition (a group working to address the needs of victims and develop a systemic response to sexual violence), and were participants in the Rotary Peace Conference in February at Clackamas Community College.

They are well matched in their fierce dedication, intelligence and, most of all, their love for kids who are sucked into the humiliating and dangerous life of selling their bodies for the enrichment of pimps.

The two women were friends while growing up in Tualatin, but went their separate ways for a number of years. But destiny brought them together as the dynamic duo of sex trafficking fighters as their passion for helping kids took them on the same path.

They know they have their work cut out for them locally. Eichenberger said that Portland is known as a “sex town,” with more sex-related businesses per capita than even Las Vegas.

“They’re born here, they’re raised here and they’re sold here,” Eichenberger said. “It’s a case of simple supply and demand. The demand is that men want to purchase children for sex. The average age of girls pulled into sex trafficking is 12 to 14, and our youngest case was only 8 years old. Most kids enter the sex industry as minors, and they can’t get out. They get stuck.

“We’ve been trying to help one 21-year-old woman for years, and she has her own kids now,” Burres said. “She has found it extremely difficult to get any other type of work except sex work.”

The common wisdom among the general public is that girls who get into the sex trade are “bad girls,” girls from bad homes, with drug use and abusive parents. They are believed to be doomed from the start.

But Burres and Eichenberger can cite countless cases of “good girls” who go just as wrong as the bad girls, and no case is the child’s fault. They are victimized by people who are really good at brainwashing kids, both boys and girls, and transforming them into objects they can sell. Even a girl from a good home can be subjected to flattery and fear and end up in the biggest mess of her life.

Clackamas County has been in the news recently due to the case of the former Lake Oswego High School student and cheerleader, Julia Haner, accused of recruiting minor former classmates to work in the sex industry. A local survivor, Mara Hutchins, did an April 10 interview with KOIN 6 News, during which she talked about the manipulations used in this form of modern-day slavery.

“It’s not like they keep you behind a locked door,” Hutchins said. “They have your mind locked, so you can physically unlock the door and the girl is not going to walk out of there.”

Eichenberger said “it becomes a mind game, peer on peer and older males. They find ‘the hole’ in a kid’s life. If they love clothes, they give them clothes. They say, ‘If you love me, you’ll do a trick. After the trick they say, ‘You’re a slut, and that’s all you will ever be.’ They say sex is the only thing a girl is good for.”

Hutchins went on to share that she was recruited along with other teens at a local strip mall at the age of 13. The reality is that though Hutchins did not name a specific mall in her interview, it is well known that local malls are an attractive spot for traffickers to find their victims, and this includes Clackamas Town Center. They also are attracted to other areas where groups of youth tend to congregate, including public transportation, schools and social media.

“When I entered this work, I found that it was the kid next door who was getting involved in sex trafficking,” Eichenberger said. “People are so judgmental. It is not a willing decision, it’s a trauma reaction.”

In spring 2013, a Clackamas County man, Dwayne Jamal Hubbard, was sentenced to 14 years in prison followed by a five-year term of supervised release after pleading guilty to trafficking of a minor.

This is an overwhelming problem that defies solutions, even for the most dauntless crusader.

“To end sex trafficking, it is going to take outrage,” Eichenberger said. “It’s going to take people standing up and saying, ‘We are not going to allow this anymore.’”

Still, sex trafficking seems like an insurmountable problem. After all, as Eichenberger noted, it is based on an infallible business model. But Burres and Eichenberger are not “tilting at windmills.” Their idealism is tempered with realism. By building A Village for One they will be giving a home to kids, seven at a time, to help them step out of the trafficking life. It won’t end the tragedy of trafficking, but the lives of some children will be saved. They will be assured of receiving the highest quality of care for their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs.

“We know the faces and the hearts of these youth,” Eichenberger said. “No one else has so touched my heart the same way. We know these kids, and we want to put them in a home they deserve.”

Added Burres: “We also want to aid the children of sex workers.” For more information, about A Village for One, go to childsextrafficking.org.

News Editor Raymond Rendleman contributed to this report.




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