Human trafficking and Wilsonville don't sound like they go together. But considering the largest thoroughfare on the entire West Coast runs directly through the heart of the growing city, the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office has made the problem an emphasis in recent months — and that includes Wilsonville.
Partnering with the FBI, Portland Police and the nonprofit Safety Compass, Clackamas County set up a series of small sting operations throughout Wilsonville and other nearby cities. The goal is twofold: To provide help to victimized juveniles as well as to locate and prosecute traffickers.
"Our primary focus in Clackamas County was to find the juveniles, which we've been fairly successful at in the short period of time we started this," says Clackamas County Sgt. Jason Ritter, who has spearheaded the patrol portion of the efforts. "But no matter if they're 12 or 40, these girls can still be victims and we want to help those people too. These people (traffickers) prey on girls who don't have jobs, have kids or need money, and they start to control them in that aspect of their life."
Ritter says while it's impossible to reliably track with statistics, law enforcement officials don't think the problem of human trafficking is necessarily more or less prevalent than in the past, but that numbers of identifiable prostitution inevitably rise when you make the issue a priority. As more and more focus has been placed on human trafficking in Portland, those activities have spread to surrounding cities like Wilsonville.
To combat the problem, police have begun to set up sting operations in quiet parts of the county with the hopes of locating sex workers. Law enforcement targets places in secluded areas absent of traffic to lure sex workers and, if everything goes according to plan, their exploiters as well. Ritter has worked alongside Wilsonville police — who are contracted by Clackamas County — for a number of stings in Wilsonville as well.
"Girls and their traffickers are smart. They Google addresses, they Google phone numbers. They're really out there trying not to get caught as best they can. But we've had success setting up little sting operations," Ritter says. "Last year we did two full-out stings at a local motel but generally it's smaller stings."
Once a sex worker has been identified, Clackamas County contacts Safety Compass, a nonprofit that provides free, confidential support to victims of commercial sex trafficking. Working in tandem with police, Safety Compass makes sure girls receive the help they need, while simultaneously working to expose traffickers. That means immediate care on the scene, and ongoing counseling and treatment as long as the victim wants afterwards.
"We do emergency response advocacy and so we might get called out to the scene, because most of these girls have an exploiter, even if they don't want to name their pimp," says Safety Compass Executive Director and Founder Esther Nelson, who estimates 90 percent of the girls she comes across have a trafficker. "Most of them have an exploiter, so getting them what would look like domestic violence-type advocacy usually helps them open up.
"As we begin to talk to them, even if they say they don't have a pimp, over a number of conversations we can weigh out what a healthy relationship looks like and where all their money goes. We oftentimes see a shift as they realize their situation might be worse than they had realized."
Safety Compass has served 48 survivors in Clackamas County in the past year alone, a handful of whom were minors. As of April, Nelson says Safety Compass has had nearly 1,500 direct service contacts with crisis victims.
Working with the Clackamas County District Attorney's Office, Ritter says the objective is not necessarily to charge sex workers with prostitution or anything else, but to make sure they receive the help they need to escape what he calls the West Coast trafficking circuit. He says that circuit spans the entire coast, meaning it's not uncommon for sex workers and traffickers in Clackamas County to hail from places like Los Angeles or Las Vegas.
"We're targeting those people that are in the (circuit). We're not necessarily looking for the local girl that's just out trying to pay her electricity bill," Ritter says. "We're looking for that person from Vegas who's up I-5 working the track. If you have a hotel, if you have a major thoroughfare that runs through, if you have a computer with access to the internet, you're going to find (human trafficking)."
But Nelson adds that her organization has found sex workers come from and live all over Clackamas County, too. And just because residents can't see human trafficking in Wilsonville, it doesn't mean it's not there.
Traffickers have moved to online recruitment, targeting young girls through social media sites like Facebook and Instagram in particular, which has made tracking those people that much more difficult. She recommends parents monitor their children's online activity, particularly if their kids are creating alias accounts.
"With everything out there, gone are the days when (traffickers) would hang out on the mall and recruit that way by watching for kids that should be in school but aren't. Now they're doing it all via internet, which creates more difficulties," Ritter says.
"If your child has an alias page and starts going by a different name online, it might be where they do all their work so that their parents don't find out about it," Nelson says. "That's a red flag and is something parents need to be aware of. It can happen to anyone."
With human trafficking comes other serious crimes as well. Ritter says stings routinely produce other crimes related to drugs and weapons, which can be of equal concern given the severity. Clackamas County deputies are more focused on human traffickers than the people soliciting prostitution, but Ritter says they're an important piece of the puzzle as well.
"These are bad people doing bad things. It's not just two consenting adults doing what they'd like; these (sex workers) are almost always forced into this business," Ritter says. "Even if they're willingly engaging in prostitution now, chances are they were forced into human trafficking at the start.
"We routinely see other charges associated with this. Just the other week we recovered a stolen gun from a sting operation."
Ritter says Clackamas County will continue to target human traffickers into the future, but with limited resources they can only do so much. He says he wouldn't go as far as to call human trafficking in the area an epidemic but he acknowledges it's a serious issue.
"I-5 goes right through Wilsonville. There is a West Coast circuit of traffickers and I-5 is the major thoroughfare. It goes right through your town and it can happen anywhere," Ritter says. "Hotels, homes, you name it. It's a problem we're addressing and one to be aware of."
For more information about Safety Compass and the work the nonprofit does, go to SafetCompass.org.
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