Human trafficking is here: How to spot it, what’s being done about it
Senior Staff Writer
An older friend convinces some teenagers to travel to a rural area to “party,” removes their shoes and other belongings and insists they must pay for the drugs and alcohol they consumed by sleeping with his friends.
A parent pays for her drug habit by selling the sexual services of her child.
A man, known as a “Romeo pimp,” convinces a woman that he is an attentive boyfriend. He gradually asserts greater and greater control over her, limits her contact with family and friends, and finally insists that she must prostitute herself to pay for the debts he says he’s incurred on her behalf.
A mail order bride comes to America in the hope of a better life, but is soon coerced by her new husband to provide sex or labor to people she’s never met, whose language she doesn’t speak. She has no family to turn to for help.
All these, and more, are human trafficking, the ugly face of modern-day slavery. And they have all happened right here in rural Douglas County.
The words human trafficking, for many, conjure up images of women being kidnapped and transported across international borders. Actually, that’s human smuggling. And while the victims of smuggling often become victims of human trafficking, the definitions of the two crimes are different.
In simplest terms, human trafficking is defined by the Department of Homeland Security as “modern-day slavery” which “involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”
If the victim is a minor, force or coercion isn’t necessary to prove they’ve been trafficked. There’s no such thing as a teen prostitute or child porn actor. No minor can consent to being sold for sex, so if that’s happening, the minor is a human trafficking victim.
TRAFFICKING IS HERE
Awareness of the problem locally has been growing since 2015, when Marion Kotowski founded the Douglas County Human Trafficking Task Force. Kotowski said many people are aware trafficking takes place in larger cities, but are surprised to discover it’s here as well. Much of the trafficking locally is related to the drug trade, she said.
Kotowski first heard about trafficking while serving on a child abuse team. The team handled a case that had the markers of trafficking, but no one in the room — advocates, law enforcement, counselors — recognized it for what it was.
“That actually just sent off a chain reaction of events of really finding out what trafficking would look like in a rural area,” Kotowski said.
They’re still learning. Kotowski has since become aware of a dozen specific cases, but she suspects the problem is much bigger. How much bigger, she’s not certain. Seventy-four Oregon cases were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2018. Of those, 58 involved sex trafficking. At least some of the calls it received were from Douglas County, but exact numbers weren’t available. As awareness grows, the number of reports grows.
Kotowski declined to share any detailed stories, saying the community is just too small and she wants to protect the victims’ privacy. But the examples above suggest some of the common themes. Many sex trafficking victims are recruited online, through games or social media. While poverty, childhood sexual trauma and being female are high risk factors, any person — rich or poor, male or female — can become a victim. The most vulnerable population is youth, and not just teens but pre-teens are at risk.
“Kids, they think they’re 10 feet tall and bulletproof, that bad things aren’t going to happen to them. And they’re involved in it before they know it,” Kotowski said.
Soon after the task force was created, it brought down Department of Justice officials from Portland who specialize in sex trafficking cases. They set themselves up in a motel room here in Douglas County and put out an ad on a website known for advertising prostitutes. This ad, a fake meant to search for the johns who purchase sex trafficking victims’ services, suggested a minor was being offered for sex.
“They had responses literally within seconds of posting, from our own community members who were consumers,” Kotowski said. Other responses came from truckers who planned to pass through the county, and who asked if the service was “truck friendly.”
THE COMMUNITY MOBILIZES
While much remains to be understood about human trafficking in Douglas County, the community response is rapidly growing. Among the front line soldiers in the fight, in addition to the task force, are law enforcement officials like Myrtle Creek Detective Kevin Taggart, Battered Persons’ Advocacy and the local Zonta chapter. Umpqua Community College nursing and trucking students have also taken up the cause, as have the Umpqua Valley Republican Women, who held a series of community awareness meetings on the subject last spring.
The local Zonta chapter has applied for a grant from Zonta International that would help pay for a curriculum teaching youth how to recognize trafficking risks, establish healthy relationship boundaries and recognize predatory behavior. It would also pay to train teachers, health care professionals and human services professionals about trafficking.
Laura Jackson of Zonta said she first became aware of the problem in 2017, when she attended an annual open house put on by the task force.
“Some of us Zonta members attended that and we were just like wow, to think this is in our community,” she said.
She said the group recognized the task force as part of its annual Rose Day event and received good media coverage.
“From that it just spearheaded a lot more people contacting the task force, asking for a lot more education, doing things,” she said.
Kotowski said it was Zonta’s efforts that really put the task force’s work on the map. Currently, there’s a trainer working with each new class of UCC trucking students to help them recognize the signs. Nursing students at UCC took up the cause this year as well. They created a flyer they’ve been placing around the county and at rest stops up and down I-5. Often they leave it in bathrooms — one of the few places victims are likely to be free of the criminals who control them.
“Are You Safe?” the flyer asks. It then ticks off some of the classic signs of trafficking. Are you free to come and go as you please? Do you have to make money for someone else using your body or your labor? Are you unable to earn or manage your own money? The flyer contains tear-off strips at the bottom with a national human trafficking hotline number.
“This was a class project to do something to help the community. We wanted to do something we felt would actually make a difference,” said nursing class member Casiana Lopez.
They’ve learned a lot about the human trafficking problem since, and are working to educate other current and future nurses. That’s important, the students said, because in come cases nurses could well be the people who first recognize the signs a patient might be a victim.
“They really have a chance to make contact and do something about it,” said nursing student Courtney Rigsby.
Lopez said the nurses have been very responsive.
“It’s cool to see all of the nurses get behind it,” she said.
The News-Review was unable to reach Taggart for an interview. However, his efforts to catch the johns by posing as a young teen online have been previously in the news and others in the fight had high praise for his efforts.
HELPING THE VICTIMS
Nicole Rodriguez is the sexual assault services director for Battered Persons’ Advocacy. She’s worked with about a half dozen sex trafficking victims since arriving in Douglas County in 2015. A common story among victims begins with an invitation to party, often with an older friend. The party, or parties, are followed eventually by an announcement that the victim owes the trafficker some sort of debt for the drinks or drugs or gifts they’ve been given. It’s a debt they didn’t know they were accruing and they’ll never be able to pay back.
The victim is blamed for her own situation and told that no one will believe her if she reaches out for help. Because she was drinking or doing drugs, she’s told she has no credibility.
“It’s making them feel like they’re not a normal member of society anymore. It’s kind of this brainwashing,” Rodriguez said.
The perpetrator may continue to provide things to the victim and pretending to be a friend, to be helping.
Rodriguez said the toughest part of working with a person who’s been trafficked for sex is convincing the victim to trust her.
“They’re the most paranoid people that I’ve ever worked with, because the people who have told them that they were there for them, and that they wanted to help them, they’re traffickers,” she said. As a result, victims don’t know who to trust anymore.
“I’ve literally been working with survivors who say, ‘Can I trust you? Are you really safe? Are you really an advocate?’ Because they’ve been deceived so many times,” she said.
Breaking the cycle involves improving their physical and mental health and giving them the space to re-learn who they are. Because they’ve lost their sense of identity.
Also, it often requires working with other shelters around the country to relocate the victims, who may never feel safe here again.
Rodriguez believes solving the problem begins with awareness.
“The more people who are aware of the signs and can look like a safe person to turn to, the better,” she said.
KNOW THE SIGNS
So what are the signs that a sex trafficker is targeting a potential victim, or that a person is already a victim of trafficking? Here are some behaviors advocates say should raise red flags:
Romeo pimps, who can be male or female, seek out young people who express feelings of loneliness, of being misunderstood at school or home, and become their “best friend.” Often they make first contact online. The trafficker claims to like everything the victim likes, to understand them better than anyone. Only later, when the victim is hooked, do they begin asserting they need them to work for or have sex with others. Typically all the money goes not to the victim but to the pimp.
Older people who express an unusual interest in befriending or partying with younger people, and who invite them to parties or shower them with expensive gifts may be traffickers.
A person who gives out drugs for free may be hoping to get the victim hooked and under their control. Later they may force them into trafficking in exchange for drugs.
Anyone who asks a person to sleep with others or become involved in pornography, especially if the victim is a child, is likely a trafficker.
A person already being trafficked may be constantly watched and controlled. The trafficker may follow them everywhere, control their money, forbid them to leave where they live or to contact relatives.
They may initially appear to be, and often are, victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. It’s worth asking more questions to see if they’re also being trafficked.
They may suddenly show up with a new tattoo. Advocates say victims are often marked with tattoos that identify them to johns. Some known trafficking tattoos include cherries, crowns and dollar signs.
And don’t overlook the possibility of labor trafficking, in which victims are trafficked for work rather than sex. Domestic and agricultural labor are among the places trafficking is found.
The efforts to raise awareness continue. The Douglas County Human Trafficking Task Force is sponsoring a community awareness event about the problem from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 28 at Phoenix Charter School in Roseburg. Detective Taggart will be the guest speaker for the program.
WHAT TO DO
If you suspect human trafficking, contact the national human trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text “Help” to 233733. If you are a sex trafficking victim or have made contact with one, direct them to Battered Persons’ Advocacy at 541-673-7867.
Don’t be a john. Advocates say if you are purchasing prostitution or pornography, you are likely supporting sex trafficking.
Hannah Spagnola, a member of the human trafficking task force and a board member at BPA, said many people are consumers of sex trafficking without realizing it. About 60 percent of porn consumers are men, and 40 percent are women.
“A lot of people are unaware that the pornography industry is largely fueled by human trafficking. It’s not people choosing of their own free will,” Spagnola said.
Spagnola said she’s glad people are becoming more aware of the problem, because that’s the first step toward preventing it.
That doesn’t make it any easier to accept that it’s here.
“It’s not a fun topic to talk about. It’s the stuff of nightmares really. It’s the stuff we all hope and pray would never happen to us or anybody we know or our kids,” she said.