Preventing human trafficking in Multnomah County

If you are, or know of a child or an adult, involved in sex trafficking in immediate danger, please call 9-1-1.

Sex trafficking is a serious and growing issue throughout Oregon and the United States.

“This isn’t something exclusive to our area,” Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill said. “We know sex trafficking occurs in our community, throughout all of Oregon and now more than ever online.”

Local, state and federal law enforcement continue to make valiant strides, but more work needs to be done when it comes to educating the public on human trafficking issues and prevention.

The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office Human Trafficking Team recognizes sex trafficking is not isolated to one socioeconomic group. It can impact families from all walks of life. Statistics show that in Multnomah County there are roughly 11,000 attempts to purchase sex online each week.

The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office Human Trafficking Team includes two attorneys, an investigator and a victim advocate. Additionally, an attorney assigned to the MCDA gang unit is available to help prosecute cases and support the team as trafficking routinely intersects with gang violence.

The team is supervised by Senior Deputy District Attorney J.R. Ujifusa who is crossed designated as a Special Assistant United States Attorney. Deputy District Attorney Mike Botthof has an office at the Portland Police Bureau’s Family Services Division. This gives him direct access to the law enforcement members who make up the Portland Police Bureau’s Human Trafficking Unit.

Kendra Bonetti, the team’s victim advocate, will typically first meet a victim at the time of grand jury.

“From there, I walk them through the criminal justice process and offer them resources,” Bonetti said. “A lot of our victims are going through so much emotionally that this can be a very difficult period for them. We want them to know we are here for them, and we care about getting them out of these dangerous situations.”

Bonetti works with local service providers to help victims of sex trafficking “break the loyalty” they have to traffickers.

“It can take years to break the bond between a victim and trafficker because of how deeply entrenched these victims become,” Bonetti said. “Traffickers inflict so much physical, emotional and mental trauma victims can’t see the reality of their situation. We can give them all the resources we have but often, the victim needs to be in a safe place, both emotionally and physically, otherwise they go back to what they know and we don’t want to see that.”

Bonetti said sex buyers cause tremendous damage to the victims and community.

“You’re treating people like they belong in a grocery store – like you can just walk in, buy them off the shelf and leave without a second thought. What you’re actually doing is destroying families,” she said.

The MCDA Human Trafficking Team works closely with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, Portland Police Bureau’s Sex Trafficking Unit and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“This needs to be an all hands on deck approach to combating sex trafficking,” Botthof said. “Our teams are constantly sharing information between one another. We rely heavily on Multnomah County Parole and Probation officers, Oregon DHS and other law enforcement agencies so we can identify traffickers and ultimately rescue any victims we find.”

It should be alarming to the community that the average age for a person being sex trafficked in Multnomah County is less than 16 years old,” said Ujifusa. “That’s a time in a child’s life when they should be excited about getting settled into high school, getting their driver’s license, and going to the movies with friends.”

Once trafficked, youth can be victimized into their adulthood.

“That trauma can cause lasting damage,” Botthof said.

The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office remains committed to combatting sex trafficking and reducing the demand.

Research on sex buyers has shown that public awareness, employers and loved ones finding out, losing a car or other possessions and “john schools” deter or reduce demand.

“A lot of sex buyers don’t fully understand the implications involved with purchasing sex,” Botthof said. “By purchasing sex, these people are driving up the demand and traffickers increase their recruitment efforts.”

“I don’t think people understand how serious this abuse is,” Bonetti said. “We would never think that someone who loves us would force us down next to someone, multiple times a night, and tell us to have sex with a stranger.”

On April 6, 2018, as part of federal law enforcement efforts, backpage.com and its affiliated websites were seized and shut down.

“Backpage was well known for facilitating the commercial sexual exploitation of adults and minors,” Ujifusa said. “Getting that site shut down was a major victory but now we’re seeing new sites gaining traction. Backpage is gone but the demand and exploitation is not.”

With more layers of encryption and secrecy, traffickers and sex buyers are utilizing the internet to set up their “dates.” The internet gives the sex buyer an assumed layer of anonymity but law enforcement efforts continue to ramp up to identify traffickers and sex buyers. Missions in the past have resulted in the arrests of public employees, private practice attorneys, and college students.

Portland’s 82nd Avenue continues to be an area where sex trafficking occurs. Some of the motels are known to law enforcement as places where sex buyers will take victims to engage in sex acts. Over the years, law enforcement has worked with community groups to help reduce the number of transactions occurring, but we know what’s not seen in person occurs using a keyboard or smartphone.

The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office’s Human Trafficking Team works to protect victims utilizing a three-prong approach: (1) aggressively prosecuting those who traffic victims to sex buyers; (2) reducing demand for exploitation in all forms to include a dedicated focus on a reduction of sex buyers; and (3) ensuring adequate protection and support for victims of human trafficking.

The MCDA team is actively involved with legislative action to draft new laws that help close loopholes for offenders and laws to strengthen victim rights and protection. Since 2010, Ujifusa has appeared before, and testified at, numerous state committees to educate lawmakers on human trafficking issues.

“When we talk with community members, they’re often surprised to learn about how pervasive human sex trafficking is,” Ujifusa said. “This is not a victimless crime. These survivors have names, families, dreams and stories but a trafficker will treat them like a piece of property. It’s a humiliating and degrading experience compounded by physical, sexual and mental abuse.”

The DA’s Office is aware that sex trafficking can often intertwine with domestic violence and gang violence.

“We have seen gang members recruit teens and young adults, including male victims, for the sole purpose of making money,” Botthof said. “The gangs are learning it’s easier and more lucrative for them to sell sex than it is to sell guns or drugs.”

Chanel Thomas, a victim advocate with the District Attorney’s Office who specializes in gang cases, echoed what Botthof said.

“These gang members know it’s easier to use and to sell a human over and over and make more money than to sell a single gun or some dope,” Thomas said.”

Thomas said victims become “trapped” by their recruiters. In many cases the trafficker will develop a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship.

“They are making these girls dependent on them,” Thomas said.

Even when law enforcement can effect an arrest, traffickers will continue their criminal behavior even while in jail.

“We’ve seen aunties and moms of defendants taking the place of the trafficker,” Thomas said.

The victims will continue to work – even with their trafficker in jail – knowing their friends or family may still hurt them. The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office works to identify those situations and attempts to identify money that is put on an inmate’s books that may have come from sex acts.

“The manipulation is on a whole other level,” Thomas said of the traffickers. “It is disgusting how a person can look at another person and just see them as money.”

In 2011, a specialized program, known as the Sex Buyers Accountability and Diversion Program (SBAD), was created in an effort to reduce the demand for commercial sex trafficking. SBAD, which is only available to sex buyers who have been arrested for purchasing or attempting to purchase sex with an adult, seeks to change the sex buyers’ future decision-making by educating them about the legal, social and health ramifications of the commercial sex trade.

The SBAD curriculum examines the dynamics of the trafficker/victim relationship, the impact on victims, community impact, and potential consequences relating to the buyer’s health, relationships and interaction with the criminal justice system.

Victim advocates, like Bonetti and Thomas, can support a victim with information and guide them through pre-trial and prosecution proceedings. The advocate offers safety planning, including protective order acquisition referral to Gateway Center.

Thomas said working with victims of sex trafficking, and being available to them, is the most important thing she can do as an advocate.

“We have to stay involved because if we don’t – someone else will be – and that person will tell them all the wrong things,” Thomas said. “One of the biggest challenges we see is when a survivor is ready to get a real world job, they struggle with real world wages. In their past, they could make a month’s salary in just two hours so it draws them back into that life. That’s why we’re here to stand next to them and help.”


Resources:


Important Phone Numbers

Emergency help: 9-1-1
Non-emergency dispatch in Multnomah County: 503-823-3333
CrimeStoppers of Oregon: 503-823-HELP (4357)
Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office Victim Assistance Program: 503-988-3222
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888