Almost $700,000 was allocated to support child victims

By Kelsey Turner / InvestigateWest

Washington state lawmakers have passed a bill that takes steps to prosecute more human trafficking cases and fix the state’s “Safe Harbor” law meant to protect child sex trafficking victims.

In early March, Washington legislators unanimously passed Senate Bill 6006, which aims to increase prosecutions of human trafficking cases by expanding some definitions associated with trafficking crimes and removing time limits to prosecute child sex trafficking cases, among other measures. It now awaits the governor’s signature.

The legislation follows recent InvestigateWest reporting that documented how the number of people convicted for sex trafficking in Washington’s state and federal courts has remained low over the last decade, at around 30 people per year, while the state has failed to create much-needed receiving centers for child trafficking victims to get counseling and services. Hundreds of children and youth are trafficked for sex throughout Washington each year, research shows

“We have to make sure that we have that balance between making sure it’s a fair trial where all of the defendant’s rights are preserved, but also being victim-centered,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, the bill’s lead sponsor. “I think we can have that balance.” 

The bill also examines the state’s failure to implement its Safe Harbor law, which ensures child sex trafficking victims are not charged as criminals. The law, passed in 2020, promised to create two receiving centers to serve child victims, one on the east side and one on the west side of the Cascade Mountains. They were to start operating by Jan. 1, 2021, the law says. But more than three years later, as InvestigateWest revealed in October, neither center is operating.

The Legislature included $694,000 in the state’s supplemental operating budget for fiscal year 2025 to go toward the two receiving centers. The approved Senate bill also reestablishes the state’s Commercially Sexually Exploited Children Statewide Coordinating Committee, which was originally created in 2013 and expired in June 2023. The committee must make recommendations on how to “fulfill and improve” the Safe Harbor law, including “addressing the lack of receiving centers,” the bill says.

For service providers who are desperate for safe places to send child trafficking victims, the receiving centers are “a necessity,” said SarahAnn Harris Hamilton, a program coordinator with the Seattle-based nonprofit Organization for Prostitution Survivors. Hamilton conducts outreach on Seattle’s Aurora Avenue North, an area known for high rates of sex work and trafficking. 

“When I go out there to Aurora, and let’s say I see 10 girls — I guarantee you at least seven of them are underage,” Hamilton said. “We work with girls every day that we have to tell every day, ‘I don’t have anywhere for you to go.’”

Prosecuting trafficking cases  

The new legislation expands the definition of “coercion” to include providing or withholding drugs or life necessities like money, food and lodging — all common tactics used by traffickers to control their victims, according to survivors and service providers. The goal is to increase prosecutions of human trafficking cases by making the law more reflective of victims’ needs and the realities of trafficking, Dhingra said.

Stakeholders say this new definition is crucial in adult trafficking cases, which require prosecutors to prove that force, fraud or coercion was used. Under Washington’s current law, “coercion” is more limited to physical violence and specific threats.

“An example that we saw a lot of was providing drugs to trafficking victims as a means to get them addicted, or as a means to try to cajole or coerce them into further exploitation,” said Ben Gauen, an attorney who led King County’s trafficking response as a senior deputy prosecutor for five years until January. “This expanded definition of coercion really addresses that.”   

Victim testimony is often another critical piece to building cases against traffickers. But testifying in front of their alleged traffickers can be re-traumatizing for survivors, as attorneys question them in court about the details of their exploitation.

The new legislation would allow children under 18 to testify virtually in a separate room from their alleged trafficker in some situations. It also allows kids’ out-of-court statements describing their exploitation to be used in proceedings against alleged traffickers in certain cases involving victims under 18.

“The process that they go through is extremely traumatizing. We have heard that over and over again from survivors,” Dhingra said. “The trial process is still extremely challenging, but hopefully this will make it better so that they are more willing to hold their traffickers accountable.”

These alternatives to in-person victim testimony are based on policy recommendations by Shared Hope International, an anti-trafficking nonprofit that releases annual analyses of state laws addressing child and youth sex trafficking. But whether these changes will actually be useful in Washington courts remains to be seen, said Alexandra Voorhees, the lead prosecutor for commercial sexual exploitation cases at the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.    

“They are very well meaning. I think how often they’ll actually be able to be used in practice is probably going to be fairly limited,” Voorhees said.

For Gauen, the legislation’s effectiveness will depend on how local law enforcement and prosecutors implement it, he said. 

“We can have these really good anti-trafficking laws on the books, but if we’re not identifying victims, if we’re not investigating trafficking incidents, if police and prosecutors are not properly trained, then these laws are not going to be used effectively,” Gauen said.

The Safe Harbor law

Fixing the shortcomings of Washington’s 2020 Safe Harbor law was another priority for Dhingra, she said. 

Inadequate funding is one of the main reasons why the receiving centers still don’t exist, an informal survey by a King County task force found in 2021. The Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families allocates $500,000 for each center annually, which service providers say is not enough to cover the costs of launching and operating a center for half the state.

“This is a really key component to have up and running,” said Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, the lead sponsor of the 2020 Safe Harbor bill who pushed for additional funding in this year’s supplemental budget. “Part of what we heard in western Washington is that the funds weren’t sufficient to operate the facility.”

But the $694,000 that the Legislature approved in additional funding is far below the nearly $1.7 million that Orwall initially requested during the legislative session. And compared to other states that successfully run Safe Harbor services, Washington’s funding remains low, a 2023 analysis by Shared Hope International shows. Minnesota, for example — one of the leading states in enacting sustainably funded Safe Harbor laws, according to Shared Hope — allocates over $4 million of state funds for Safe Harbor services, the analysis says.

Apart from inadequate funding, restrictions on who is eligible to run the centers have also prevented the law’s successful implementation, said Cameron Norton, DCYF program manager for missing and exploited youth. Many organizations can’t operate the centers because they aren’t licensed as a behavioral health agency — one of several requirements under the Safe Harbor law, Norton said.

Organizations that are interested in operating the centers must apply through DCYF. But on the west side of the Cascades, no agency has ever done so, according to the department. On the east side, Daybreak Youth Services opened a center in Spokane in 2022, but the center shut down after operating for less than a year amid allegations of sexual misconduct between Daybreak staff and teenage clients at one of the organization’s facilities. Since then, no other qualified agency has applied, according to DCYF. 

“I’ve spoken with providers in different community settings who are interested in doing something, but the qualifications in the legislation don’t allow them to fit with that particular funding,” Norton said.

Dhingra said she’s been in conversations with agencies in King and Clark counties that can potentially run the centers. She’s hopeful that the added funds will be enough to get the centers off the ground. 

“My hope, really, is that they’ll be up and running sometime this year,” Dhingra said. “I will be keeping a close eye and making sure that people apply for these grants and that this work is being done.” 

FEATURED IMAGE: The number of people convicted for sex trafficking in Washington and Oregon has remained low over the last decade as reported cases have gone up. (Moriah Ratner/InvestigateWest)

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that no qualified agency has applied to open a receiving center since Daybreak Youth Services shut down. 

InvestigateWest ( is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Reporter Kelsey Turner can be reached at