PORTLAND — The 14-year-old girl has no place to go. The people in her family can’t protect her or provide her with a good home.
The man she calls “Dad” was her mother’s pimp. Her grandmother was a prostitute, too.
She has been in and out of the foster care system since the age of 3 and first sold for sex at about age 9. Her sex appeal has been cultivated from such an early age that she shows little interest in much else. She is restless in the locked treatment facility she lives in.
In Oregon’s Multnomah County, officials are tracking about 120 children, like the 14-year-old, who are involved in sex trafficking. The intent is to coordinate responses by police, prosecutors, child welfare workers and social service providers.
“Predominantly we see kids that are known to child welfare,” said Joslyn Baker, a collaboration specialist for the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice in a program known as the Community Response to Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children.
Though children in the sex trade sometimes come from secure homes, most have histories of sexual abuse and violence for which they have not received proper treatment, Baker said. They also can be frequent runaways.
Pimps, she said, “very much prey on the vulnerability of the child and what is missing in that child’s life,” filling a void. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re so pretty,’ or ‘You’re so smart. I could be your boyfriend.’ They will groom them for weeks or even months.”
By the time the children are sold for sex, Baker said, they are bonded to their pimps. Like victims of domestic violence, the children don’t run away. Instead, they want to get back to that good time when they felt cared for and loved.
Social service providers who are focused on the problem convene twice monthly to brainstorm options. There are few.
Only one place treats victims of child sex trafficking in Portland (Garfield House, run by Janus Youth Programs). Help for children is often cobbled together through existing programs that don’t have expertise in working with sex-trafficking victims.
The system is already strained. Because Child Protective Services has taken a leadership role in protecting children involved in the sex trade, those cases are added to other cases they already are handling.
At a Dec. 14 meeting of child welfare workers, the conversation centers on the 14-year-old girl, whose name is not mentioned to protect her privacy.
Those at the meeting agree the girl is a perfect candidate for Garfield House. It’s modeled on similar programs for homeless youths that focus on being nonjudgmental, providing information and helping young people develop tools for success as adults. The facility is secure but not locked, and staff have special training to help children break bonds with pimps.
Absent a placement there, the girl is months away from the end of residential treatment. Competition for Garfield House, with only eight beds, will be fierce. Though she could go to foster care, she may not get focused treatment there and could end up running and being trafficked again. “It’s really easy to default and lock them up into a detention model,” said Baker, who says there is tension between the police and advocates who want to protect children from pimps by locking them up and social workers who believe the model is a failure.
“No matter how long you lock them up for, when they get out, they run and you haven’t fixed the problem,” said Lynn Haxton, an attorney at Juvenile Rights Project. “If you want to break that bond, putting a girl in a cell with a concrete slab for a bed and a stainless steel sink, I don’t think that’s going to do it.”
Haxton joins a majority of social service providers in arguing that child victims of sex trafficking should receive treatment where available until a targeted system is developed. Much like victims of domestic violence, they come to realize that a better life exists and choose to cultivate one over time.
That appears to be the case with the 14-year-old girl. Back in the system after her last run from treatment, she has recently been sold in Las Vegas, California and Washington. But her caseworker notes she’s not as guarded as she used to be.
The facade — the one she wears when she tells you everything is fine — is gone. She doesn’t know how to get out on her own, the caseworker says. But there’s growing trust that they can help her find a way.