References to gender-based violence, exploitation and sexual assault frequent the headlines these days, fueled in part by a presidential campaign that regularly drifts away from substantive issues that concern our country and our communities. Unfortunately, gender-based violence, exploitation and sexual assault cannot be dismissed as mere “locker room banter.” Human sex trafficking, defined as exploitation through force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of commercial sex, is a thriving business in our community and across the country.
A 2014 study looking at sex trafficking in Seattle and King County found that an estimated 27,000 people solicit sex each day in King County.1 During one 24 hour period in Seattle an estimated 6,847 people solicited sex through one website.2 Buyers have more than 100 website options choose from and thousands of ads. Local online review sites allow members to “rate” their purchases, with one site having 15,000-20,000 members. Police detectives who post ads for commercial sex will get 200-250 response in 2 hours. Recall backpage? It ran 34,000 ads per month in July, August and September.
There are at least three reasons why KCBA should care about sex trafficking, particularly the commercial sexual exploitation of children (“CSEC”). First, it is tied to our access-to-justice mission. Senior Deputy King County Prosecuting Attorney Val Richey, aptly characterized the problem as a “profoundly economic and racial justice issue” that “falls on the spectrum of gender-based violence.”
Child victims of sex trafficking, also referred to as CSECs,3 fall squarely within the mission population KCBA’s access to justice focus is intended to reach. They are poor, vulnerable and, compared to the general population, disproportionately African American (44% of all youth victims) or representative of other minority groups (Asian Native American, Hispanic, LGBT).4 They are often homeless or fleeing from a family setting that involved sexual or physical abuse and neglect. Many have mental health and/or substance abuse issues and all are vulnerable to grooming by a pimp who initially offers one of the most powerfully addictive substances around — a connection to another person who appears to care about you and your needs. In addition to their pimps CSECs in King County are most often victimized by buyers who are upper middle class, predominantly white (79%) males.5
The overwhelming majority of CSECs in King County are girls, although the percentage of boys and transgender youth is on the rise.6 These girls routinely experience physical violence by buyers. Prevalence data regarding violence against commercial sex workers, including children, suggests that 86% are subjected to physical or sexual violence by buyers, 62% are repeatedly raped, 68% suffer from PTSD and 89% want out of the business.
Second, KCBA members and their clients are undoubtedly part of problem. Buyers of commercial sex services from children come from variety of business and industry sectors: Retail & Wholesale (14%), Transportation (12%), Information (IT) (12%), Manufacturing (12%), Construction (12%), Professional & Business Services (11%), Government (10%), Leisure/Hospitality (8%), Other Services (6%), Education/Health (6%) and Financial Activities (1%).7 There is evidence suggesting these buyers are soliciting sex online during working hours and traffickers are using business premises, products and services to facilitate trafficking activities. Employers should be concerned about adverse impact of work-place trafficking activity, including business, financial and legal risks. BEST (Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking) is a local-based non-profit working with several business leaders to address risk and promote prevention through training programs and policy development. Founded in 2012 BEST’s focus is on prevention. It’s first success came from training programs developed for hoteliers in Washington State to assist with early identification of trafficking victims and related trafficking activity in and around hotels. Today, BEST is overseeing online training across the country. BEST also formed an Employer Alliance that presently involves 25 employers with over 200,000 employees. Why shouldn’t lawyers be a partner in this effort?
Third, the legal profession is integrally involved in broader community efforts to combat CSEC. In 2013 the King County Superior Court launched the CSEC Task Force, chaired by King County Superior Court Judge Barbara Mack. Funded through a grant from the Center for Children and Youth Justice (CCYJ) the Task Force is a broad-based coalition involving law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, DSHS Children’s Administration, service providers, businesses, and grassroots community advocates. It is successfully implementing the Washington State Model Protocol for Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (“Protocol”), which takes a victim-centered approach to prevention.8 Under this protocol early identification of CSECs is promoted through specialized training programs offered in the schools, to law enforcement and to relevant service providers. Identified CSECs are referred first to a Community Advocate who supports access to necessary services, with additional referral to Law Enforcement or CPS only as necessary. Since 2012 arrests and convictions of CSECs for prostitution are dramatically down, with no arrests in King County in the last 24 months. During the same time period arrests of men trying to buy sex from children are dramatically up.
These efforts are helped in part the Buyer Beware Project, a very unique Seattle-based collaboration between the King County Prosecutor, the Seattle-City Attorney, BEST, OPS (Organization for Prostitution Survivors) and SAS (Seattle Against Slavery). Buyer Beware and the Protocol are receiving national recognition for their innovative, broad based approach to combating commercial sexual exploitation of children.
In spite of these successes, CSEC, which is a substantially more complicated problem than this overview might suggest, is not going away. The Task Force needs our help in one or more of the following ways:
• Volunteer as a pro bono attorney on behalf of trafficking victims who are in the Northwest Detention Center. Go to https://traffickingindetention.eventbrite.com for information about an upcoming educational event on November 16 titled “Passion for Justice”;
• Get your law firm to engage by joining BEST and contributing to policy development and prevention efforts within our profession;
• Participate with Val Richey in developing a CLE;
• If your practice involves sexual assault, domestic violence or family law issues obtaining training on how to identify and refer CSEC victims; and
• If you are a parent, protect your children against grooming by traffickers through education regarding safe practices online and in the community.
Before closing I’d like to extend a special thanks to Judge Mack, Val Richey and Mar Brettmann for providing resources and discussing these issues with me and for the tremendous work they are doing in this area.
1 Seattle-based 2014 follow up study to, Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, et a. “Invisible Offenders: A Study Estimating Online Sex Customers,” Arizona State University, August, 2013.
3 CSECs are youth age 17 and younger, with the average age of initiation into trafficking being 13-14. “CCYJ ‘Project Respect’ Washington State Model Protocol for Commercially Sexually Exploited Children” March 2013.
4 Generally, statistics come from data developed through efforts overseen by the Task Force or a Task Force representative, including primarily the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
6 Bridge Collaboration Data developed by Auburn Youth resources, Friends of Youth, OPS and YouthCare, 2014-2016.
7 BEST, data derived from Public Records Requests, 2014-2015
8 This Protocol was developed through a collaboration between CCYJ and YouthCare. For more background and supporting documentation see “CCYJ ‘Project Respect’ Washington State Model Protocol for Commercially Sexually Exploited Children” March 2013.