A Modern Slavery; Human Trafficking in the Portland Area

by Audrey Meschter

In the polished linoleum hallways of an American shopping mall, a man sits at an empty food court table, practically invisible to the passing crowds of bag-toting shoppers. He is in his mid-twenties, well-dressed and relatively handsome, the epitome of mediocrity, and passable in every sense of the word. Yet as he sips from his styrofoam cup, his eyes dart across the crowds searching for vulnerability and hesitance, a lack of confidence, or an aura of insecurity.

When vulnerability finally emerges from the crowd, passing his table with her head low, he raises his hand to grab her attention. He compliments her — “You know, you’re very beautiful”, “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help but notice how pretty you are” — or a myriad of other like remarks, drawing her into his simulated sense of security. Something in this girl’s life has made it so that she appears weak and vulnerable, qualities a trained eye like his can quickly pick out of a crowd. Perhaps she has recently immigrated to the United States and is struggling to acclimate to this new culture, or perhaps she has grown up without a stable home life — or, it may be that she is simply looking for someone to validate the beauty she doesn’t believe she possesses. Whatever the cause may be of her apparent insecurity, she has found someone to affirm whatever doubts she may have been having, and thus begins a vicious and manipulative cycle of silent abuse.

This silent abuse is one of the first stages of what is commonly referred to as human trafficking. Though the story above is fictional, it models a very common method of victim targeting by the trafficker or ‘pimp’, whereby the trafficker targets someone they deem to be particularly vulnerable or insecure through carefully articulated manipulation. Deputy Keith Bickford, a Multnomah County Sheriff who worked in human trafficking for many years, says a trafficker he once interviewed in prison described these particularly vulnerable people as ‘the blood in the water’ (Bickford). Shopping malls are a common place for pimps to sit and target their victims because of the surplus of people passing by and how easy it is for the pimp to go unnoticed; that said, there is really no limit to where or how traffickers target victims (Bickford). “They’re communicating, they’re educating themselves, they’re studying what the police do, the tactics the police use, and what the task forces are doing – they’re not dumb at all,” Keith says. “They’re very educated, they know what they’re doing, because this is good money for them”  he adds (Bickford). Victims are more commonly female, like in the above story, but men are frequently targeted, too; statistically, minors have the highest trafficking rates, because a commercial sex act of any degree involving a minor instantly becomes classified as sex trafficking (“Sex Trafficking”). When looking at the statistics of females engaged in commercial sex acts, “44% of these survivors estimated that they were 17 or younger”, while “the average age of entry was 19 years old” (“The Average Age”). Keith recalls that similarly,“15 to 16 year olds was roughly the average” (Bickford). Regardless, plenty of adults become targeted and involved in sex trafficking; US law defines adult sex trafficking as someone “aged 18 or over induced into commercial sex through force, fraud, or coercion” (“The Victims”). When it comes to the traffickers, they are more difficult to generalize. “All of [the traffickers] were male,” Keith says. “In terms of an age or race, there really wasn’t an average” he adds (Bickford). “I think the youngest [trafficker] was down to like, 16-17 years old, trafficking girls who were sometimes older than he was, all the way up to some guys in their 40s” he says (Bickford). Keith has observed many changes in trafficking techniques over the course of his career in the Human Trafficking Task Force. “A long time ago it was one pimp working one particular street, he had his own girls that he was trafficking, but I think that’s changed a lot now; they’re becoming a much harder nut to crack” (Bickford). Targeting and gaining the interest of the victim is one thing, but it’s the constant psychological and even physical abuse that is soon to follow that defines a trafficker’s meticulous planning to reach their inevitable goal of prostituting their victims. “Never underestimate any of the traffickers, ever; they are good business-people,” Keith warns (Bickford).

Traffickers are quick to target their victims, as they know exactly what traits to look for; “one would be crying, or mad at their boyfriend or mad at their parents, and he would find that ‘achilles tendon’ and go right after it,” Keith says as he recounts the story of the trafficker he met in prison. “You know, he would say, ‘Oh I heard your parents won’t buy you a phone? Hey, why don’t I buy you one? How about that and then we can go talk for a little bit’, just weaving his way in” Keith recalls (Bickford). “[Traffickers are] very smooth, very good at what they do, and if they strike out, there’s always another girl they can go find; this guy, he was never worried about striking out, about somebody telling him no, because he would just move onto the next one” Keith says (Bickford). Many of the victims these traffickers target eventually fall in love with their captors — defined as Stockholm Syndrome — making it so that they no longer have a clear sense of right and wrong. This makes it so that the traffickers are eventually able to reach a point of control and trust in their relationship where they are able to use their victims as pawns in a trade of sexual exploitation (Bickford).

The ‘art’ of trafficking is one most people underestimate; the traffickers are incredibly cunning and stealth, and their methods of targeting and capturing their victims is manipulative and carried out with meticulous precision. Oftentimes, traffickers end up knowing their victims and their weaknesses better than anyone (Bickford). (“Sex Trafficking”). “Something that really stuck in my head is how effective these guys are when it comes to brainwashing these girls,” Keith says. “Turning them on their own families, their friends, away from their normal life and talking them into getting raped every day by guys that want to pay for sex — and it’s hard to even talk about that — the logical part of your mind is going ‘no way, how do you do that?’, but to the traffickers that’s a very effective way to make money and keep the girls around longer” (Bickford). Even more harrowing is the realization that the victims of these traffickers already have to endure sexual assault practically on a daily basis, but “if they’re not on drugs or alcohol, their bodies last longer. These girls are getting raped 10, 12, 15 times a day, and that’s hard enough on a body, but you add drugs and alcohol to that and the body wears out quicker. Well, if the traffickers don’t have that issue, the body lasts longer and they make more money off the child,” Keith says (Bickford). As Keith mentioned, these traffickers “are good business-people … They are willing to continue doing this — even though you could get prison for this — it’s just that the money is so good they can’t pass that up” (Bickford).

 

Transportation of the victims is one of the key parts of the ‘business’ of trafficking, and one of the reasons why, as Keith describes, “Portland is very busy with child sex trafficking” (Bickford). There is a key aspect of Portland — and the Pacific Northwest in general — that makes it a hub for sex trafficking. Interstate 5, or I-5, is very familiar to Oregon locals, as well as the many others who reside along the West Coast of the United States. The I-5 interstate lines the coast of California, running through San Diego and continuing through Los Angeles, snaking still up the coast through Portland and Seattle until its top touches the Canadian border, just as its bottom reaches down to the Mexican border. It’s an easy alternative to flying, as travelers of the West Coast can be in a different state by car in a matter of hours. Yet the rain-soaked locals of Portland and Seattle trying to escape to the California sun are not the only people to utilize this easy bridge between the states; once they have successfully targeted and gained the trust of their victims, I-5 is also a preferred mode of transportation for human traffickers.

Portland and Seattle are the two large cities that make up the northernmost part of the West Coast that I-5 borders, and given their relatively high populations and easy access to the interstate, they — among other cities — are often attributed to having high rates of human trafficking; “law enforcement officials say because Portland and Seattle have ports, and lie along I-5, the two cities have become hubs for the criminal groups that traffic in people” (Lovett). Traffickers can easily move their victims from Portland all the way down to the Mexican border — via I-5 — within twenty-four hours, making it that much harder for law enforcement to track both victim and trafficker (Bickford). Keith notes that Portland is the subject of a lot of national scrutiny, though he has an explanation as to why: “One thing to keep in mind is that Portland is recognized nationally, but a lot of it has to do with all the hard work that all these good people are doing to combat the issue,” Keith says. “Portland got a black eye five to ten years ago… there was something mentioned about, you know, ‘Oh it’s the second worst city in the United States for child sex trafficking’ that kind of thing; that actually really isn’t true. Portland has a problem, but so does L.A., so do different cities in Texas, Nevada, New York, so we’re not ranked in any way. Ours was more the people working to combat the issue” Keith says (Bickford).

Half of the battle when it comes to combating human trafficking is awareness; simply understanding the issue and knowing the warning signs can make a huge difference in putting a stop to these crimes. “I think [the awareness in Portland] is growing, the interest in combating it, the education is getting better,” Keith says when asked about how aware of human trafficking he thinks the Portland community is. “You would like to say everybody knows about the problem, but that’s just not possible” (Bickford). One of the most unique aspects of Portland’s work is the collaboration between victim advocates and the Portland Police. “I’ve always been impressed with the fact that the police and victim advocates work really well together,” Keith says. “It’s a very unusual thing to happen and I think it’s really helped saving the children from giving into this kind of thing” (Bickford). Victim advocates are people trained specifically to support victims of crime (like human trafficking), who aid those affected in finding resources and information, as well as provide counseling and emotional support (“What is a”). “The Portland Police, usually if they go out to interview or try to pull a young child out of a sex trafficking issue, they usually try to bring an advocate with them; it’s part of their policy. It shows that they’re there to help the child, not just showing up with handcuffs to take [the trafficker] away” Bickford says.

The care and rehabilitation offered to victims of human trafficking in Portland is also notable and growing; just as Keith mentioned, Portland is put on the map not only because of its issue with human trafficking, but because of all the good work the community is doing to combat the problem and care for those affected (Bickford). Door to Grace is an organization doing just that: located in northeast Portland, nestled between blocks of apartments and small convenience stores, they work to provide mentorship, shelter, resources, and support to women all over Portland (Weiner). “Door to Grace is always around no matter where [these women] are in life”, says the director of programming and case management, Roxanne Weiner, as we sit in her office at Door to Grace; “We’re always going to embrace them” (Weiner).

Door to Grace has an open floor plan that has been divided into little alcoves and smaller gathering areas via pin boards or cubicle walls, creating an immediate sense of comfort and security as I move through the space. Door to Grace was first conceptualized in 2009, as its founders were made aware of the human trafficking problem present in their hometown of Portland; by 2011 Door to Grace was an established non-profit (“Our Program”). Though they toyed with the idea of being a residential home, Door to Grace settled on providing mentorship to young girls and women who were victims of sex trafficking (Weiner). When at Door to Grace, I exit the entryway and find myself in a larger gathering space with sofas and an assortment of eclectic furniture, giving the space a sense of familiarity as we move through it. The decor in the room was clearly chosen not only for function, but to create a place of comfort and warmth for the people who, at this time in their lives, need it the most.

Roxanne moves us back through the main area and into her office, and I find myself directed through a discreet door by her desk into the basement of the building. Downstairs is another large, open room, and my eye is immediately drawn to the piles of miscellaneous donations, ranging from diapers to feminine hygiene to underwear, piled high on and under the tables against the wall. Door to Grace takes in whatever donations they can to help the girls start to rebuild their lives and provide for themselves (and sometimes their children), and it’s clear looking at the tables that Door to Grace has a supportive community rallying behind them. Keith brought up this movement many times, noting all the organizations and people who, despite the severity of the issue at hand, are making great strides to help eliminate human trafficking; “I tend to focus a lot more on the folks who are battling the issue; victim advocates, teamwork with the police departments, sheriffs offices, judicial systems – that I can honestly tell you has moved forward in a very positive way to try and eliminate this problem” he says (Bickford). Looking at the piles of donations and learning about all the volunteers who make Door to Grace possible, it’s clear this is true.  

Roxanne and I linger in the basement a little longer, then eventually make our way up the flight of stairs so that we find ourselves back in her office; like Roxanne, her office space is stylish and youthful, decorated with pastels and metallics and made very open and bright by the large window above her workspace. Though fun and games (like amusement park outings and movie nights) are a major component of the life and community Door to Grace has built, they also aid the girls in applying for housing, paying bills, and learning essential life and relationship skills; “We’re all about supporting what the youth needs” Roxanne says (Weiner). A key part of Door to Grace’s program is the mentorship they provide to the girls they cater to. Door to Grace’s mentorship program “connects youth with positive role models from the community”, as volunteers eventually become mentors. “Consistency in our population is so important,” Roxanne says (Weiner). Door to Grace ensures that their volunteers are able to commit to their job for at least six months, because it’s incredibly difficult for one of their girls to become attached to her mentor, only to have said mentor not show up one day, or need to resign because of school or work. The volunteers at Door to Grace undergo extensive training before they can become mentors, and are also taught techniques of self care, as they are dealing with very serious and heavy cases (Weiner).

Despite there being an abundance of organizations and an ever-growing awareness surrounding human trafficking in the Portland area, there is still much room for improvement. “I’m still to this day teaching classes and doing presentations to people who have had no idea what’s going on in this area” Keith says (Bickford). For the locals of Portland who hold the liberal atmosphere and kind-hearted nature of the city so close to their hearts, it can be hard to accept such a brutal reality. The answer, however, is education; a majority of Keith’s job, for example, is spent working with schools and other small communities nestled within Portland to help them understand the issue and, more importantly, how to recognize it (Bickford). “[When it comes to education], you’re not just talking to the students, you’re also talking to the faculty,” Keith says about his work with local schools. Organizations like Door to Grace have also come to understand in recent years that working together with other groups is vital in the fight to end human trafficking. “You can’t be an isolated organization,” Roxanne says. “Why not connect with others? We all serve a similar purpose” (Weiner).

Human trafficking is a difficult reality, but with the work of law enforcement officers like Keith Bickford and organizations like Door to Grace, Portland is quickly moving towards the first step of prevention, which is acceptance; human trafficking is a real and prevalent issue not only in the backyard of Portland, but all over the country. Accepting this fact and being willing to educate oneself on the warning signs of a trafficker or a victim could be the difference of at least one less sexually exploited youth. “It’s about getting information out to anyone in the community,” Keith says (Bickford). Arduous a process though it may be, working to end the exploitation and prostitution of youth in Portland is well within our reach.

* * *

In the polished linoleum hallways of an American shopping mall, a man sits at an empty food court table, practically invisible to the passing crowds of bag-toting shoppers. He is in his mid-twenties, well-dressed and relatively handsome, the epitome of mediocrity, and passable in every sense of the word. He doesn’t appear to be doing anything in particular, besides taking an occasional sip from his styrofoam cup as he observes the passing crowds with indifference. A young woman approaches the tables at which he is seated, bags in one hand and her cell phone in the other.  She looks to be about sixteen or seventeen, and appears to be alone. The girl sets her bags down on the chair a few tables down from this man, making eye-contact with him as she does so. He nods and gives her a friendly smile in acknowledgment, to which she does the same. This woman recognizes that this man is clearly older than she is, and is also alone. Despite this, her immediate instinct is not to gather her things and politely remove herself from the situation; she doesn’t feel the need to scan the room for a family or someone she could possibly recognize in case something should happen. She doesn’t answer a nonexistent phone call to try and elude that someone is expecting her, nor does she pretend to be preoccupied with something on her phone in the hope that he doesn’t try and talk to her. Instead, this young woman stands and patiently waits for her ride to arrive, as she doesn’t at any point feel uncomfortable or suspicious of the man sitting by himself in the crowded food court. Her phone buzzes to indicate her ride has arrived, and she gathers her things and makes her way to the exit without incident — just the way it should be.

The world in which this man and woman exist is the kind of world people like Keith and Roxanne are working to make a reality. A world in which women are aware but not fearful, where they can feel like they can be alone and not susceptible to be targeted, and where their vulnerabilities are explored for the sake of self-betterment, not exploitation. If we continue to emulate the work of Keith, Roxanne, and many others in our community, the Modern Slavery could soon be a thing of the past.

Works Cited

 

“The Average Age of Entry Myth.” Polaris, 26 Oct. 2017,

polarisproject.org/blog/2016/01/05/average-age-entry-myth.

Bickford, Keith. Personal Interview. 19 February 2018.

Kristof , Nicholas D., and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Knopf, Borzoi Books, 2009.

Lovett, Colin. “Oregon And Washington Lawmakers Tackle Human Trafficking.” Oregon

Public Broadcasting, 17 July 2012,

www.opb.org/news/article/oregon-and-washington-lawmakers-tackle-human-trafficking/.

“Our Program.” Door To Grace, http://www.doortograce.org/our-program/.

“Sex Trafficking.” Polaris, 26 Oct. 2017, polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/sex-trafficking.

“The Victims & Traffickers.” Polaris, 29 Feb. 2016, polarisproject.org/victims-traffickers.

“What Is Modern Slavery?” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, www.state.gov/j/tip/what/.

Weiner, Roxanne. Personal Interview. 19 March 2018.

“What Is a Victim Advocate?” What Is a Victim Advocate-, National Center for Victims of

Crime,

victimsofcrime.org/help-for-crime-victims/get-help-bulletins-for-crime-victims/what-is-a-victim-advocate-.

 

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