Public Safety & Homeland Security

State Takes Aim at Human Trafficking

The message is repeated in eight different languages: Vietnamese, Ukrainian, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Tagalog, Somali, and Korean.

by Charles H. Featherstone, Columbia Basin Herald, Moses Lake, Wash. / May 15, 2017
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(TNS) - In the Grant County, Wash., Courthouse, there’s a little poster on the wall by the sink in the men’s restroom.

“No one should force you into work or prostitution,” the headline reads.

“You have rights in the United States, regardless of immigration status. If you or someone you know is being forced to work, please call for help.”

The message is repeated in eight different languages: Vietnamese, Ukrainian, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Tagalog, Somali, and Korean. And two phone numbers on the bottom — one for the Washington state Crime Victim Service Center, and another for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

Because you never know who might see that sign.

Or who might need it.

There are few reliable statistics about human trafficking in the state of Washington. There’s a lot of talk about the I-5 corridor, tracking along I-90, and the addition of trafficking to the portfolio of some street gangs in the Spokane area. But there’s not a lot of light, because there aren’t many reliable numbers.

Trafficking involved everything from children — many of them runaways, or abandoned, or in the foster care system — forced to have sex to undocumented migrants forced to work on farms and in factories.

“We don’t know much about human trafficking in Central Washington,” said Rick Torrance, the managing director of the Washington State Office of Crime Victims Advocacy in Olympia. “We don’t have good statistics.”

The reason, Torrance says, is simple — most trafficking victims are reluctant to report what is happening to them. Sometimes the victims are here illegally themselves and fear being deported, many are underage and fear returning to the violence and abuse they fled, and many are simply reluctant to say “I’m a victim,” Torrance said.

“Traffickers are aware of this and will use it,” Torrance said. “Exploiters are very good at manipulating.”

Both Grant County Sheriff Tom Jones and Moses Lake Police Chief Kevin Fuhr said their agencies haven’t encountered much trafficking in Grant County.

So, rather than try to count it all, Torrance said his office focuses on identifying those most at risk of being trafficked, and getting help those who need it.

“In Washington, we’re very proud that we try to get help to victims of all kinds,” Torrance said. “But there isn’t a dedicated source of funding to help people who have been trafficked.”

According to Susie Fode, the interim program director with New Hope, which provides assistance to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, kidnapping is not the norm for child sex trafficking. Child traffickers will focus on kids who have already been abused, or abandoned, or have a condition like autism that makes them unsympathetic or unreliable witnesses.

In fact, Fode said sometimes families will sell their own children.

“A parent is addicted to substances, they may traffic out their own children to make money,” Fode said. “It happens more than you think.”

The same services that are available to any other crime victims are available to those who have been trafficked — emergency shelter, the ability to report the crime to the police, counseling, and moral support.

But services that work don’t advertise or even publicize themselves much, according to Stephanie Pratt, a program manager for the Office of Crime Victims Advocacy in Olympia.

“Things spread by word of mouth, and what works will look very different depending on the community,” she said. “There are subcultures to labor and sex trafficking. We’re trying to figure out the nuances.”

Which gets back to the sign in the men’s room in the Grant County Courthouse, the same one hanging in restrooms and waiting rooms across the state. It could be seen, and maybe remembered, by anyone — an underage child, an enslaved farmworker, a close friend or even a family member of someone needing help.

“The awareness of this is changing,” Torrance said.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at countygvt@columbiabasinherald.com.

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©2017 the Columbia Basin Herald, Wash.

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