8/17/2013 9:47:00 AM Study links human trafficking, gangs
St. Mary's Academy photo
A fall walk organized by St. Mary's Academy students winds through Portland to oppose human trafficking.
A new study counts almost 500 children in the Portland area as victims of sex trafficking in the past four years. The youngest was 8.
The Portland State University report is an examination of victims who had been referred to the Oregon Department of Human Services or the Sexual Assault Resource Center. Officials say the number of victims is higher because many do not enter the system.
Victims' average age was 15.5 years. Most were girls; only about 3 percent were boys.
More than a quarter of victims were black, even though only 6 percent of Multnomah County's population is black. About 40 percent of victims were Caucasian and 5 percent were Hispanic. About 16 percent of victims had children of their own. One lesser-known finding that has piqued the interest of police: more than half of victims were linked to gangs.
U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall told reporters that gangs have decided it is easier and cheaper to traffic girls than drugs or weapons. In response to the report, the Multnomah County District Attorney has called for a redoubling of efforts.
Federal lawmakers also took note. “We can see that trafficking isn’t just happening in the deep, dark recesses,” U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden told reporters at a press conference. Wyden said he will try to make the federal government a partner in addressing the problem.
Portland has long been seen as a major trafficking hub because it sits on the I-5 corridor and is a sea port. The local church has been part of a move to protect victims and deter trafficking.
The Archdiocese of Portland backed a bill in the recently-adjourned Oregon Legislature that made facilitating sex tourism and prostitution a crime. The bill passed unanimously.
Until federal funding was withdrawn in 2011, Catholic Charities in Portland maintained an outreach program to victims. The effort was seen as a national model. Women religious in Oregon have been campaigning against human trafficking for years, and students of Catholic schools have taken up the cause. Students at St. Mary's Academy last sponsored a "Walk to End Slavery" and students from Jesuit High School have visited federal lawmakers to push for tougher legislation against traffickers and aide for victims.
In May, Pope Francis made a special appeal against slave labor and human trafficking. "How many people worldwide are victims of this type of slavery, in which the person is at the service of his or her work," he said. "Work should offer a service to people so they may have dignity."