MOUNT VERNON — In 2013, a 13-year-old Anacortes girl posed in an ad on Backpage.com. Most of her face was cropped out of the featured photo, and the title of the ad read, “Looking for a more mature type of friendship.”
More than 100 responses poured in overnight from Anacortes, Mount Vernon, Burlington and Oak Harbor. Nearly all of them were overtly sexual messages from adult males.
It’s an all-too-common story, but this time with a twist. The photo was an old picture of an adult who grew up to be a law enforcement officer, and the ad was part of a sting set up by the Anacortes Police Department.
In a matter of days, three people were arrested in the investigation. In 2014, eight more were arrested in a larger countywide online sex sting by the Skagit Multi Agency Response Team, known as SMART.
What these investigations show and what communities are starting to realize is that human sexual trafficking is much more common than people want to believe, said Anacortes Police Chief Bonnie Bowers.
The Skagit County Coalition Against Trafficking, known as SKCAT, held a series of trainings in late January with the goal of educating community members, law enforcement officials, educators and health-care providers about the prevalence and warning signs of human trafficking. The trainings featured guest speaker Margie Quin, assistant special agent in charge of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations. Quin estimates she’s spent 80 percent of her time in the past five years working on matters related to human trafficking.
Bowers said human trafficking is notoriously hard to quantify, but the sheer number of responses to fabricated police advertisements is indicative of a high demand, even in Skagit County, she said.
Human trafficking is happening. And it’s happening here.
Where it starts
Human trafficking is the second largest and fastest growing criminal industry in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The average age of a trafficking victim is 12, according to Justice statistics, but not all victims are minors. Trafficking can trap victims in a cycle of drugs, crime and abuse, Quin said.
“Kids don’t wake up one day and decide to prostitute themselves,” Quin said. “Traffickers are masters of manipulation.”
Human trafficking often starts with abuse at home, incest, sexual abuse or trafficking by a relative, Quin said. Other risk factors include poverty, mental illness and low self-esteem.
However, the root cause is the continued high demand for sexually available minors, and that demand has created an industry worth many billions of dollars, she said.
“If there was no demand, there would be no supply,” Quin said.
Quin points to the nearly 19,000 sex offenders in Washington alone to demonstrate the market for minors in human trafficking, and said the average molester of juveniles will molest 50 victims before being caught.
There are 136 registered sex offenders in Skagit County, 106 of whom were convicted of offenses specifically involving minors. Twenty of these offenders are transients or have unknown addresses, said Laurie Jarolimek, coordinator of registered sex offenders for the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office.
Transients are required to check in periodically to confirm their parole compliance, and those with unknown addresses face arrest for failing to register, Jarolimek said.
However, the search for human trafficking victims and those who buy them doesn’t begin and end with sex offenders, Quin said. She notes that not all sex offenders reoffend once they’re caught, and the “johns” paying for sexual encounters with juveniles often aren’t convicted sex offenders at all.
Johns have no specific demographic and can’t be pinpointed by age, race or socioeconomic status, she said. The average age of a first-time john is 21, and frequent johns are often married with children.
A 47-year-old Canadian man was arrested Feb. 3 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers after traveling to Burlington to meet someone he believed was a 12-year-old girl for sex. The suspect in that case initiated contact through a Craigslist posting in Vancouver, British Columbia.
It’s important to clarify that the children and women sold in human trafficking cases are rarely active participants in a crime like solicitation, Bowers said.
“We’re seeing a paradigm shift where police are realizing that we’re not seeing prostitutes; we’re seeing victims,” she said.
The average life expectancy of a human trafficking victim after they have been commercially sexually exploited is seven years.
“Human trafficking is an inherently violent crime, and victims suffer extreme, complex trauma,” Quin said. “The leading cause of death for people in the commercial sex industry is homicide.”
Add to that another tough statistic for juveniles: 33 percent of runaways end up recruited into the sex industry less than 48 hours after leaving home, according to 2012 Justice Department data.
Human trafficking doesn’t happen on streets and in alleys anymore, Quin said. It happens online, often through social media and on sites like MeetMe, Craigslist and Backpage.com.
The result has been a $32 billion industry based on human trafficking, Quin said.
“The problem with human trafficking in general is that so many people don’t know about it, even in small communities,” Bowers said. “This is, in part, because it takes place largely on the Internet.”
In January 2012, Washington state passed a law making it a felony to advertise a child for sex, but Backpage.com, an online classified advertising service, filed motions to keep it from taking effect. Backpage.com eventually sued the state, leading to the invalidation of the law.
Last October, Backpage.com was sued by three Washington girls who were sold as prostitutes on the website. They contended the website operator helped pimps and traffickers in the sexual exploitation of minors. The website facilitates at least 80 percent of all online commercial sex advertising in the country and doesn’t require age verification to post ads in its “Escorts” section, allowing for anonymous payments, according to the lawsuit, which is ongoing.
In 2013, a Tacoma man searching for his missing 15-year-old daughter tracked her down through a posting on Backpage.com advertising prostitution.
Many buy/sell sites include a disclaimer in their terms of service requiring users to report suspected exploitation of minors and human trafficking to the appropriate authorities, but the lawsuits allege that these policies are not enforced.
For $5 an ad, Backpage.com allows people to post advertisements for escorts.
Mount Vernon has a tab on Backpage.com with more than five pages of adult listings.
One recent adult ad stated: “New in town, don’t miss out on 60 dollar special.” Another simply said, “Young and fun.”
Mount Vernon Police Lt. Chris Cammock, who worked with SMART in its recent online sting, said the idea of geography as it relates to prostitution isn’t as relevant as it used to be.
The SMART team is comprised of about 25 officials from the Anacortes, Burlington, Mount Vernon and Sedro-Woolley police departments, as well as the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office and the State Patrol.
“We in Skagit County have very little visible exposure to prostitution,” he said. “The Internet has changed the way we think of zones where crimes can take place.”
Vulnerable populations, including children, take refuge on the Internet, Cammock said, and that’s where traffickers find them.
Quin places the onus on parents to monitor their children’s online presence and educate them about the dangers of meeting and conversing with people online.
Finding suspects in an online police sting, like the SMART effort that resulted in eight arrests late last year, is terrifyingly easy, Bowers said.
“How easy the stings are is frightening, from a law enforcement perspective — to know how many people want to have sexual contact with a minor,” she said.
SKCAT chair Gayle Kersten estimates that 300 to 400 people attended January’s presentations and trainings, including guidance counselors, foster parents, nurses and law enforcement officers.
People are consistently surprised that trafficking exists in Skagit County, she said.
“As much as I’d like to live in a world without evil, I don’t, and children can’t always speak for themselves,” Kersten said. “The first step to making a tangible difference is awakening the community.”
Quin said 28 percent of victims come into contact with the health-care system during their time in captivity, but health-care professionals and first responders might not realize it.
The victims of human trafficking are often not cooperative because they think of law enforcement as the enemy and may even want to defend their abuser, Bowers said.
The best tool to reach victims is with therapeutic communication, but the key to ending trafficking for good is by engaging men, because men make up the majority of those who buy trafficking victims, Quin said.
SKCAT, one of eight coalitions in the state that works to end human trafficking, will be working with Christ the King Church on a program called Illusions, aimed at men and boys to talk about expectations set by pornography, Kersten said.
The organization is also working on the Deceptions Program, which has been instituted in the Anacortes School District. The program teaches students what to look for when interacting with others both online and off, and tells students how to monitor their online privacy.
“One of the highest priorities for SKCAT is helping to make kids aware of the risk,” Kersten said. “Our next step is to try to implement this program in the county’s other school districts.”
Those who wish to help end human trafficking should join a local organization dedicated to the cause, Quin said.
Victims of trafficking need help from multiple agencies to get out of that life for good and can benefit from job training, housing assistance, tattoo removal, drug counseling and therapy, she said.
“It’s not enough to just wring your hands,” Quin said. “If you want to end human trafficking, take action and do something.”