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Sex trafficking in Washington County: 'They are here'

Small-town children can be more susceptible to slick manipulation


NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - Brianna Myers (far left), subject of the trafficking awareness documentary 'Chosen,' joined Jo Lembo and Tiffany Fieken on a panel that discussed the various dangers and problems associated with human trafficking at Pacific University's Taylor-Meade Performing Arts Center Feb. 18.Brianna Myers was excited to explore the world.

Having just turned 18, the Clark County, Wash., native wanted to get out and have real-world experiences, do grown-up things and eventually attend medical school to become a nurse.

Then Myers met Nick, a man who promised to help her achieve her dreams. In Myers’ mind, he became the only person who understood her, who treated her like an adult and who took her dreams seriously.

It was fairly easy for Nick to convince her that together they could take on the world, Myers said.

“He validated my feelings and ideas — told me we’ll get there together,” she said.

But medical school is expensive. And though Myers had been doing well to save her wages as a waitress, Nick told her he knew a way she could make exponentially more — as long as she was OK with dancing naked.

In the Taylor-Meade Performing Arts Center auditorium on Pacific University’s Forest Grove campus Thursday night, Myers told an audience of more than 80 the story of how she nearly became a victim of human trafficking.

“It’s so different from what I thought before this happened to me,” said Myers, now 24 and working as a nurse. “We think it’s this scary person that’s out there somewhere, not here. But they are here.”

Myers joined five other panelists for a “Human Trafficking — What Is It?” presentation that focused primarily on sex trafficking, but also discussed the labor trafficking of impoverished and vulnerable people.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - The number of people involved with human trafficking would be far less if there was greater economic equality, said Pacific Chaplain Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie. This is particularly true for women, who experience economic inequality at greater numbers than men. For example, many women involved in human trafficking are also part of the underground labor force.

“We’re not here to share fear and paranoia,” said Jo Lembo, ambassador for Shared Hope International, a trafficking advocacy, awareness and prevention nonprofit. “We’re here to share ways to get engaged with the fight.”

At least one person in the audience wondered if there was really sex trafficking in Washington County.

Portland Police Officer Ariana Ridgely, who for the past year has worked undercover with the city’s Sex Trafficking Unit, gave an adamant yes.

“If you think you’re protected in nice, safe small towns, don’t delude yourself,” she said. “Small towns can be even more dangerous than a big city.”

Often, she said, small-town children are the most susceptible to becoming victims of trafficking because they want to get out and see what the world is like beyond the confining borders of their hometowns.

“We don’t want to scare children,” Ridgely said, “but it is good to make them wary.”

Wariness was something Myers admits she didn’t have.

“I was completely manipulated,” she said. “You have to realize that if someone is in a situation that seems sketchy, they probably don’t even realize it.”

Myers offered warning signs that might identify a potential trafficker.

“A guy who is always available to you is a red flag,” Myers said. “They want you to feel special, but they’re just preying on your vulnerabilities.” NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - In the hall outside Taylor-Meade auditorium, Shared Hope and other organizations held a How Can I Help Fair, where attendees had the opportunity to connect with groups and get involved.

Along with offering a girl excessive compliments, someone who will buy her new clothes, make her salon appointments, drive nice cars or take her to big cities without question is someone to be wary of, Myers said. “And don’t think you’re exempt from this problem.”

Strip clubs are like the minor league baseball equivalent to major league prostitution, Ridgely said. And with the plethora of nude dance clubs in Portland, the city is a “hotbed for trafficking,” she added. “Sex work is considered acceptable here as a form of expression, but identifying those who choose versus those who don’t is key,” Ridgely said.

Myers danced twice at the strip club before friends and family managed to convince her it was a bad idea. Once she was made to recognize what was happening, Myers cut off the relationship with Nick.

“Education is key,” Lembo said. “If we know the signs, we’re not as vulnerable. The world gets smaller. If you know what you can do to help, then you can do it.”

On a related front, Pacific Chaplain Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie spoke about labor trafficking, another form of modern-day slavery in which people perform labor or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion, according to traffickingresourcecenter.org.

Because labor is seen as a good character-builder by many evangelical Christians, “it’s harder to get people fired up in terms of sustained activism when you’re talking about tomato pickers,” Currie said.

But “human trafficking shouldn’t be addressed as an isolated issue, separate from other issues including labor trafficking and gender equality,” Currie said after the event. “These are all connected.”