PORTLAND, Ore. - Prosecutors, police officers and social service workers have long known that the sexual exploitation of children is a major problem in Portland, but for the first time an academic study is taking a hard look at the extent of the problem.
According to U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall, who pushed for the study, the research will help the people involved in stopping child sexual exploitation for the first time truly understand the scope of the problem.
"We can tell you anecdotally we have a problem, we have cases," Marshall said. "But we didn't have any way to quantify it."
The study confirms that Portland does indeed have a significant problem with children being forced into prostitution. The study's authors saying quantifying the problem will help lawmakers and others craft strategies to better combat the problem.
"What I hope to do is to use the bully pulpit of my office to get the word out," Marshall said.
While reviewing reports from several agencies, researchers found 469 separate cases of children being used in the sex trade between 2009 and 2013; however, the authors warned that cases are widely under-reported.
"As a result, the findings in this report are very conservative," the report said.
During the four years period studied in the report, researchers found that 15.5 years old is the average age for a child in the sex trade to first be referred to the Department of Human Services or other relevant government agencies.
The youngest victim referred to DHS was just eight years old. All but one of the victims in the study was born in the United States.
"We have concrete proof that sex trafficking is not just going on in the dark corners of Asia, sex trafficking is going on in our community," Senator Ron Wyden said. Wyden is launching a push for federal legislation to combat child sexual exploitation.
African American victims are disproportionately represented in the cases researchers examined. Just over 27 percent of child sex trade victims were black, even though African Americans make up just fewer than six percent of the population in Multnomah County.
The study found that 40.5 percent of victims are white, while around five percent are Hispanic.
There is also a strong connections between gangs and child sex trafficking. Of the cases currently being handled by either DHS or the Sexual Assault Resource Center, nearly half have connections to gangs.
Marshall said gang members have realized that selling girls in the sex trade is more profitable and less risky than trafficking guns or drugs.
The researchers asked people working to combat child sex trafficking for their recommendations to curb the problem.
In 40 cases currently handled by DHS, caseworkers said 40 child victims would be likely to benefit from some kind of long-term residential treatment facilities if such a program existed.
"Such a solution would aim to offer these children rehabilitation and re-integration services in the least restrictive setting for the recovery process," the report said.
Marshall said that sex trafficking cases are difficult to prosecute because often the young victims get caught back in the world they're trying to escape.
"We could do three times more if we could just keep these kids safe and sound long enough to testify," Marshall said.
Caseworkers also told the researchers that Oregon also needs a better system to collect data on child sex trafficking. Currently there is no system to collect data on addiction issues among victims, victims who also spend time in the juvenile justice system or victims in the foster care system.
There is also currently no centralized database with victim information that can be shared among agencies.
"What I'm hoping this data will do is provide the evidence that's needed so policymakers will move forward to get these victims the services they need to get out," Marshall said.
Push for federal legislation
Wyden said he will use the new data to push for bi-partisan federal legislation when the Senate reconvenes in September.
"I'm going to take this report and I'm going to make sure it is front and center before the United States Senate," Wyden said.
Wyden said he wants federal legislation that will cover the following:
- Make sure the exploited as true victims. "So often this has not been the case," Wyden said.
- Help state officials put together comprehensive plans to take on sex trafficking, including shelters and counseling for victims.
- Provide additional resources for law enforcement, including training.