The hot, tropical air sticks to Dr. Cyndi Romine’s skin. She sits, exhausted, in the Philippine Police Department. Across the room, two terrified Filipino sisters sit with their mother, now safe in the stagnant air. Silhouettes of their captors, shadowed men with demon-red eyes and bruising hands, flash through their young eyes. Every particle in the small rundown office seems to rest on Romine’s shoulders as she stares at the wall, eyes red and glazed over from an hour of sleep and a lifetime of horrors to occupy her dreams. She kneels in front of the mother and nods to the girls, “Would they like anything to eat?” The mother smiles; words flow softly from her lips in thick accented English.
“Yes, you know, I think they’d like some chocolate ice cream.” Dr. Romine rocks back on her heels; soft simple words, only a breath, striking her as if from the mouth of a hurricane. White-hot pain floods deep in her chest and a knot forms in her throat. In that moment, nothing could ever seem more innocent and yet nothing so powerful.
“That is what they are made for. Kids are made for chocolate ice cream, not sex” (Romine, Cyndi).
It is 2014. The days of slavery and oppression are left in the past along with the old notions of a crumbled culture. A new age has risen from the ashes, one of freedom and equality, or so it would seem to the general populous of Portland, Oregon. But the coffee shop filled, hipster, grunge town has an evil side lurking in the shadows of street corners and strip clubs. Human trafficking is a violation of human rights because of the use of “force fraud or coercion” (Voices for Victims). Trafficking women and children for sexual exploitation is the fastest growing enterprise in the world (Global Sex Trafficking Fact Sheet). And unfortunately, our beloved Portland has become home to the “largest sex industry per capita,” and “the second highest standing for sex trafficking in the country” (Human Tender). Portland’s popularity stems from the West Coast Slave Route. Deputy District Attorney of Multnomah County Greg Moadwad explains “‘I-5 is a very easy mode of transportation for pimps and prostitutes, and that’s why we tend to see more of that here,’ he says. ‘Portland is easy to get into and out of, and it’s right between British Columbia and L.A’” (Human Tender). To put the scale of this industry in perspective, there are more slaves today than any time in human history and in 2007, slave traders made more profit than Google, Nike and Starbucks combined (What is Human Trafficking).
The most used tactic to draw girls into the sex trafficking industry is coercion, Natasha Busick explained. She pushes her strawberry blonde hair out of her eyes. A mother and a teacher on the surface, but underneath she is a strong advocator for awareness to human trafficking. She describes that due to one man’s greed, one night just another faceless girl blushes when he calls her beautiful, she is enveloped in a shroud of torture. He smiles warmly at her, makes her feel wanted, and ignites something in her that she hasn’t felt in years because of all the misery in her life. She is addicted. He buys her dinner; he lets her get her nails done and treats her like a princess. She loves him and she has never felt so happy in her whole life. But one day, she needs to pay it all back. She’s living with her mom and baby brother in a rundown apartment filling a hole that her dad left when he skipped out years ago. She doesn’t have any means to pay it back to him. But he offers her a way out and when she doesn’t go easy, he already knows where her little brother goes to school and where her mom works and how they could be dead within a blink of an eye. She is gone, swept away. If only she could run. But she can’t. She was trapped from the second she smiled at him and he paid for that new bracelet dangling from her wrist. It’s the same story every time just with a different girl. Pimps go after the same type of girl, preying on the one who is beautiful, but not enough that she will have a high self-confidence. Pimps prey on the ones they just know have raging family issues or a history of sexual abuse. They can see it written on their faces. They prey on homeless teen girls and women who are too desperate for basic human needs to care who they are getting into the car with. The men, women and children sold into sex slave trade have the “average life span of two years” (What is Human Trafficking).
If the justice system does manage to catch the pimps, they usually walk without punishment. Busick explains that pimps cannot be brought to justice because they either brainwash their girls into loving them or threaten them so severely they wouldn’t dream of testifying against them. Once the pimps are free, every other young girl out there is free game. Pimps play the justice system. They slip through the firm grasp of the law; through the holes in its fingers and this great country can’t offer the targeted women and children asylum.
Fortunately, there are people who know human trafficking exists and are taking steps to fight it. There are four different facets to combat human trafficking: advocacy, restoral, prevention and rescue. All of them require immense training because the people who traffic women and children aren’t just pimps and some goons; it extends all the way to the Russian Mafia, the Bloods, drug cartels, and Eastern European and Philippine gangs. Advocacy can be dangerous. Busick explains that standing up for the girls being trafficked can get the people involved in a lot of trouble. Restoral, on the other hand, is a very dark process. Helping the victims out of the life takes a lot of work and a lot of patience. Victims are scarred in all physical and mental capacity. Helping them heal is a process for a highly trained, strong individual. (Busick, Natasha)
But, these women and children aren’t lost and forgotten. They aren’t sucked in to the system to be lost forever. The Called to Rescue team go after everyone they can. Dr. Romine and her husband Greg dedicate their lives to saving them. Her non-profit tucked away in the trees in Vancouver, Washington might not seem like the headquarters for a taskforce of superheroes among the other businesses sharing the US Digital Building. Warm wooden accents and a coffee shop with a white board stating today’s riddle surrounded the lobby. It is not exactly the headquarters I would expect at MI6.
For the past 26 years, spending nights on the street finding girls, getting chased down by pimps, waking up every morning with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder just to run out her door to do it again, the short blonde haired, bright-eyed Dr. Cyndi Romine built up Called To Rescue. She has even produced a novel titled Called To Rescue: Real Stories of Global Sex Trafficking Survivors & the Woman Who Fought To Liberate Them. Her book is filled with anecdotes of girls Cyndi has rescued and how they got there. The stories tell tales of different people but they all sound the same. “My pulse began to quicken as I wondered how we’d find our way home. Suddenly, a shiny SUV drove up. A good-looking guy in his mid-20s rolled down his window and smiled. With dark skin, jean shorts and a hat, he seemed harmless enough. ‘You girls need a ride
home?’”(Romine 84). A young guy in a nice car picking some girls up in a bad part of town doesn’t seem to be a crime to the bystanders, but Dr. Romine and her team know the girls getting in the car will never come home. The stories in her novel and in every rescue she has done always start the same in one-way or another, a cycle of girls and warm smiles. She and the members of her highly classified task force come to rescue girls who spend every waking moment in fear not only in the U.S. but also all over the world. Dr. Romine and her international task force travel to just about every country in the world searching for girls circulating the system. In the U.S., she waits in her office or at home with her phone at full volume just in case she gets the call that they get a location on the girl. But in the rest of the world, she collaborates with the country’s equivalent of the CIA and police, goes in with guns drawn, literally, breaking down the door, and rescuing the girls. Other countries don’t need as much justification to save a life.
Every person in Romine’s taskforce is highly trained, usually by Special Forces or the FBI. But in the U.S., her job is less of a scene out of an action film and more of searching, waiting, and eventually calling the police. The United States version of Called to Rescue is purely a civilian taskforce that works to find girls. Internationally however, Dr. Romine’s taskforce is a group of highly trained, highly scary men. Dr. Romine and her team have led the largest manhunt ever in the Philippines, broken down doors, and played out the action scene from every crime drama on late night television in real life. Surprisingly, participating in rescues in the United States if very safe due to legal constraints on their actions. Her team finds the girl, they stake the area out, never get out of the car, call 911 and the pimps don’t know what hit them. (Romine, Cyndi)
In a typical rescue in the United States involving minors, they have to start with the parents. Parents have to come to Called To Rescue and say they want Dr. Romine’s help. First, she and her team have to check the obvious things like Facebook, calls and texts, appointments with friends, and photos. They have to notice anyone new in the girl’s life or get to the truth with the parents about if they have been fighting or not. The girl, in the case of a teen, is usually a runaway caught by the wrong person on the street or dating someone new and kind of shady. If the girl is a runaway, finding her is so much harder. Usually, the parents “are so stupid, they take away the phones as punishment and then we really have no way of finding them,” Dr. Romine says. The sickening part is the commonality of parents selling their kids. It doesn’t even faze Dr. Romine anymore because of how many times she has seen parents give their kids to international slave gangs for a quick fix with no intention of getting them back. Parents who sell their kids usually need the money for drugs and can charge a hefty fee for the donation of a body. After subsequent research of the teen’s life, Dr. Romine and her team take to the streets. (Romine, Cyndi)
The most common area to find girls is between 82nd and Sandy all the way south to Powell St. That entire stretch, and Southeast Portland in general, is where most of Portland’s strip clubs and highest levels of crime are (PortlandMaps Detail Report). They put an all-points bulletin (APB), a notice sent out to law enforcement to be on the look out for a person, out on the girl in collaboration with the local police and work within a short timeframe to find the girl before the chances of finding her get any slimmer. The longer they wait, the farther away she gets and the list of possible places she could have gone gets bigger and bigger. In this business, the task force has to assume everything: the teen’s behavior, where she was and who could have possibly picked her up. If the girls do have their phone, they track them, get their location and call 911. Dr. Romine and her team can’t risk the possibility of having civilians on the scene, someone dead, or the bad guy gone when the police arrive. They research, find the girl, sit on stakeouts and alert the police. (Romine, Cyndi)
In more extreme cases, when girls have to be bought back from high-level gangs, they are moved into safe houses and then relocated with their families, if they have one. But Dr. Romine’s job isn’t over once her team gets the girl back. Pimps don’t like to leave the girls alone because it is so much easier just to drag the old one back in than to spend the time and effort trapping a new one. Pimps get their girls pregnant with their baby to create ties to them so that a helpless mother, with no way of taking care of a child would not dare to leave. Or, they just blatantly threaten the girls. Usually the pimps are bluffing but in the heat of the moment most people wouldn’t take that chance on their mother, father, little brother or sister’s lives. Girls that are trafficked usually stay in the U.S. unless international gangs or sex slave rings are involved so Dr. Romine “usually finds girls that have been missing for two or three years within two miles of their home”. (Romine, Cyndi)
Called to Rescue rescues the girl and turns the girl over to the parents if they want their child (often they don’t). If needed, girls are put in a hospital first then foster care if the parents wont take responsibility of their child. Then Called to Rescue has to find a safe place for them to stay, whether that is a safe house or another family member. (Romine, Cyndi)
I walk down the streets of Portland surrounded by nameless faces all going their
own directions. They are all completely blind to the little girl and the dark faceless man stealing her freedom as he rounds the corner to an alleyway. But I can see them. All of them. I see the faces of the nameless. I see the faces enslaved in the industry and I see their pain. I see their fear; the only emotion left in their dead eyes. Some still have hope but it is quickly snuffed out. I wish that I couldn’t see any of it. I wish I could fall back into the hazed view of every other person on the street trying to get from point A to point B. But I can’t. Every time I leave the confines of my sheltered life, I see the real world invisible to all but to those who are called to fight it. I’ve opened the door to knowledge that constricts me from ever closing that door again.
I have found my call to rescue and it burns bright. There are enough good people in this world to end the global slave trade, but first we have to know the truth. We have to know it exists. We have to open our eyes and open that door. Dr. Romine opened my eyes and it is time for you to open yours.
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