Helping the Victims of Operation Cross Country VII
Q&A with Victim Specialists
Agents and officers working with the Portland Division’s Child Exploitation Task Force recovered two child sex trafficking victims, along with a baby, the former of whom who were being trafficked during the recent Operation Cross Country VII national takedown...but the story does not stop there. Like all crime victims, these children deserve compassionate support and respect, and we know that the criminal justice system can be difficult to understand and confusing to navigate for them.
In each case, an FBI victim specialist is assigned to a case to ensure that a victim’s rights to notification, respect, dignity, safety, and basic necessities are met. Two of our victim specialists, Erin Kevin and Caroline Holmes, answered some common questions about their work with commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC):
How does the FBI work with these victims?
Victim specialists work with CSEC survivors to identify what their interests and needs are and to match them with appropriate service providers within the community. Some of the most common needs that victim specialists address are safety, emotional support, and housing.
What is most striking to you about the youth you have worked with?
I am continually reminded of the strength of these youth. Most of them have witnessed and experienced violence at the hands of their exploiters, as well as by other people in their lives. Their will and determination are oftentimes the only things that get them through the violence, and, when focused on a goal, they are a force to be reckoned with. They are resilient. Many of them are making decisions far more advanced than you might expect for their young age.
I am also struck by how much trauma they have experienced and the impact of this trauma on them. Some victims are able to recount—oftentimes with almost no emotions expressed—heinous physical and sexual assaults. Many of them continue to express feelings of love for the person who has committed these acts against them. Some of the survivors I meet have a difficult time imagining any existence that does not involve this type of trauma and exploitation or an identity apart from the one their exploiter has created for them.
What do you wish people knew about these youth?
Commercially sexually exploited youth are not child prostitutes. They did not choose to be in this situation. They were targeted and chosen because of their individual vulnerabilities in our society. Many of the youth we work with come from abusive homes or homes with substance abuse. They have neglectful families, have a disability, or come from families with very limited resources. Not only did the exploiter choose them for these reasons, but he or she is also relying on the fact that society looks down upon people with a difficult background. They know that people are more likely to turn away from a child with behavioral issues, substance abuse issues, or other life challenges. Whatever the reason they were targeted, the pimp chose this child to exploit and to profit from.
It used to be that we would see gangs selling drugs. We still see that, but we’ve seen a huge shift to where gangs are selling children. They can only sell a drug one time, but they can sell a child over and over.
How do these girls get caught up in trafficking?
This question reflects the tendency for people to place the blame on the child and ask, “How did they get themselves into this?” Perhaps the better question is, “What made them a target?” It’s imperative that we recognize these girls didn’t get “caught up.” For the same reasons listed above, pimps choose to recruit girls who have physical and emotional needs in their lives that are not being fulfilled. If a pimp were to target a healthy, active, affluent, well-supported young girl, his odds of success would be minimal. Although we know that this can happen, we primarily see vulnerable populations becoming targets. Pimps use promises of a better life, love, safety, security, food, shelter, gifts, and status as ways to recruit young girls.
How does the FBI partner with local social service agencies and non-profits?
FBI victim specialists work alongside law enforcement, child protective services, non-profit human services agencies, and medical providers to address the complexities of these cases. For all victims of commercial sexual exploitation in the Portland metro area, the FBI victim specialist often makes connections with the following non-profit service providers:
- Mental health organizations (such as LifeWorks Northwest)
- Community-based victim advocacy agencies (such as the Sexual Assault Resource Center, or SARC)
- Runaway and homeless youth programs (such as Janus Youth Programs)
- Faith-based programs (such as Door to Grace)
- Child abuse assessment centers (such as Cares Northwest)
What can parents do?
While it’s difficult to know for sure, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates the average age of entry into this life of commercial sexual exploitation is between 12 and 14 years of age. Parents should start early and talk to their children about this issue; education and awareness are key. Parents can support trafficking education in schools and talk to their children about Internet safety. Parents should also know their children’s friends and their friends’ friends.
How can concerned community members help?
As members of our community, it is our responsibility to be aware. When we see signs of commercially sexually exploited children, we need to focus on victim safety and offender accountability. Community members can promote legislation that protects victims and punishes the criminal. A concerned person can call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to report sighting of a missing child at 1-800-THE-LOST and/or they can contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center to report a tip at 1-888-373-7888.
Concerned citizens can also find ways to get involved with community groups, like Oregonians Against the Trafficking of Humans (OATH) or the Oregon Chapter of the FBI Citizens Academy Alumni Association. Non-profit organizations such as these promote awareness and provide leadership in special projects, such as creating bags of toiletries, clothing, blankets, and basic supplies for youth. Other community members have created scholarships, allowing the girls access to much needed education and training. I have heard of coffee companies hosting free “barista schools” to help train girls to have a skill so they can support themselves outside of their pimp’s control. These are all great ways to show support.