Protecting Our Children

FBI Child Exploitation Task Force is Making an Impact 

June 11, 2013

The FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force (CETF) has two primary goals: 1) identify and prosecute people who are involved in the sex trafficking of minors, and 2) recover the minor victims to ensure their safety and to provide them access to the services they need. Below, Special Agent Denise Biehn, the task force coordinator, answers some common questions about the work:

How many children are being trafficked in Oregon?

It is difficult to say. There are no comprehensive studies that can give us a definitive answer on that. I can tell you that there is more than enough work to keep all of us very busy.

Who are these girls?

There is often a misperception that these girls are coming from overseas. While that is certainly true in some circumstances, the majority of kids that we are seeing are from right here at home. They are just as likely to have grown up in urban areas as suburban or rural areas. They come from every racial and ethnic background. In some cases they are runaways; in other cases, they are still living at home and going to school at the time the pimp “recruits” them.

How old are these girls?

I have seen statistics showing the average entrance age is 12. Most of the girls I’ve worked with started when they were 13 or 14. Regardless, these girls are just children—our children—who are being drawn into a life of violence, drugs, and sexual abuse that is completely incomprehensible to most people. Most adult prostitutes we run across didn’t simply turn 18 and decide that this was a great life. Most of them grew up with this abuse, and they simply were never able to escape the cycle of violence and control.

Who are the pimps?

In many cases, they are gang members or affiliates. In fact, we are seeing a lot of gangs turn from dealing drugs to dealing girls because they can make more money. You can only sell drugs once, but the girls will make them money for quite some time.

Is Oregon worse than other areas?

Again, there is not a lot of research in this area. What I can tell you is that many of the girls we work with got their “start” dancing in strip clubs—again, often underage. Portland has one of the highest number of strip clubs and sex shops per capita in the country. It is easy to believe that there may be a link.

How do you work these cases?

In many instances, we develop these cases because the task force officers are out on the street. They find the girls working what we call “the track”—82nd Avenue. They also have a good eye for finding the motels or other locations where the girls are sent to meet their johns. In other cases, we have agents and officers actively working online undercover, looking at some of the websites where pimps are posting information and pictures about the girls. We also get some tips from the public and from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Who are the partner agencies?

We have great partnerships with local agencies—both law enforcement and social service/non-profits. We couldn’t do this work without them. On the law enforcement side, we have full-time participation from Portland Police Bureau, Tigard Police Department, Beaverton Police Department, the Vancouver Police Department, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

How long has the CETF been working on this problem?

In its current form, the CETF has been in existence for about a year. However, the FBI and all of our local partners have been working together to address this problem for many years.

How can you tell that the CETF is effective?

We have an aggressive team of people who are committed to making a difference for these girls in particular and our community as a whole. In the past year, we have seen a number of both federal and state indictments and convictions of pimps. In many cases, we are seeing extremely tough sentences for the pimps, and we have reason to believe that those sentences are having some impact.

The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office prosecuted one of the most prominent cases—Gregory Hightower, Sr. In February 2013, a judge sentenced Hightower to life in prison without the possibility of release for trafficking teens, his third such conviction. In the end, Hightower told the judge he was not sorry for his most recent crimes, saying he victimized no one.

Other cases include: