She was the kind of kid who in daycare went around and tucked everybody in before she climbed into her own little bed.

“Our daughter was a girl with a big heart,” said Brian Owens, a Catholic and father of three (names have been changed at the family’s request).

When Nichole was 19, a pimp drew her into his world, gradually and with skilled manipulation. Part of the pattern is to “bring you in with tales of woe,” Brian said. The violence comes later.

The story is painful to tell, but Alice and Brian Owens want to tell it — how their smart, athletic daughter, a graduate of a Catholic high school, became a victim of sex trafficking in their friendly, outdoorsy college town of Eugene.

“In our mind, compassion is a beautiful and noble thing,” said Brian. For the pimp, compassion is a weakness that can be used to take advantage of another person and turn her into a commodity.

“And he did.”

A hub

While it’s difficult to obtain reliable data on sex trafficking — partially due to its hidden nature — the International Labor Organization estimates there are 4.8 million people trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally.

It not only occurs in developing countries, where impoverished women and girls are known to sell their bodies to survive. From 2007 to 2017, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received reports of 34,700 sex trafficking cases inside the United States. There was a 13% increase in U.S. human trafficking cases from 2016 to 2017, according to Polaris, the nonprofit that runs the national hotline through a contract with the U.S. government.

In Oregon, sex trafficking is a sizable problem. It ranks 17th highest in the country for calls to the hotline. “We are a hub here,” said Amanda Swanson, first-ever trafficking intervention coordinator for the Oregon Department of Justice. She collaborates with the FBI, law enforcement, mental health and faith-based organizations, among others, to address human trafficking in the state.

Within the Portland metro area there currently are an estimated 595 minors and nearly 1,200 adults being trafficked for sex. The data was compiled by Molly McDade-Hood, human trafficking sergeant for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.

A 2013 Portland State University study that focused on trafficked minors in the Portland area found the average age victims made contact with support services was around 15. The youngest victim was 8 years old.

In Portland and elsewhere in the state, the number of youths and adults “in the life” is likely higher than figures indicate.

One reason is that most people don’t self-identify as victims, said Natalie Weaver, who oversees a Multnomah County collaborative working to prevent human trafficking and aid survivors.

Media and misguided education campaigns have associated sex trafficking with chains and cages or suggested victims always are kidnapped and that the perpetrator will be a stranger.

Such false information can keep victims from seeking help, said Weaver.

“There are youths who say they didn’t connect to services because they didn’t relate to the images of trafficking. They’ll say, ‘It didn’t fit with my story so I didn’t think it applied to me.’”

‘Keep her away from him’

Brian and Alice Owens have been through hell together, but their marriage and trust in God endures.

Knowing their daughter was a commodity offered to satisfy men’s desires “was a really difficult thing; you start to question your faith,” said the 65-year-old Brian, who spent 42 years serving as a teacher, coach, administrator and counselor in Catholic schools. He’s now a development director for a Catholic charity.

“The people who reached out to us, who put faith into shoes, that’s what helped us get through it,” he said.

Nichole, the second of three girls, was a stellar athlete growing up. She played soccer, basketball, softball and volleyball.

Three weeks into her freshman year of high school, however, an upperclassman took advantage of her.

Still visibly pained and angered, Brian paused after recounting it.

“We saw a change in her,” he continued. She lost some of her sparkle. She quit all sports.

But senior year she went out for cheerleading, helping the squad finish third in the state. She graduated and went on to a community college. Her future seemed hope-filled.

Then there was that day in March 2000.

“We were having dinner — [Alice] made a nice dinner — and she came over and said she had a new boyfriend.” Nichole described him as a singer and said they’d often go clubbing.

“The way she was telling the story hit me the wrong way,” said Brian. “Parents have that thing in their stomach that says, ‘Hmm.’”

He contacted a friend in law enforcement and asked him to check the guy out.

Brian repeated the friend’s words: “That’s not a good person; keep her away from him.”

They tried repeatedly, said Brian. “It wasn’t going to happen.”

He’d always loved the way Nichole played basketball. “You were not getting the rebound. When she sets her mind on something, she’s going to go for it. That was true for this person.”

At first they thought she was just willful. But after about six months they began to realize it was something scary. Slowly, she was falling more and more under the sway of the pimp.

The Owens hired a private investigator and learned how gang members in various parts of the region are sent out on what perpetrators call “farming expeditions.”

“They go ‘to farm’ and get a ‘herd’ or ‘stable’ of women or children,” said Brian. “It’s amazing to hear the metaphorical references to farming when we are talking about human beings.”

Once, the Owens managed to get Nichole out of the area and to New York City, where she was going to stay with Brian’s sister.

“She got a job and we were so excited,” he recalled. “We thought, ‘This is good, this is a turnabout.’”

But the calls kept coming.

“How they got her number, I have no idea,” Brian said. “They figured out where she was.”

Alice, at the time home alone with their 9-year-old, started seeing people in front of the house.

Brian said pimps often threaten not only the victims but also their families.

“When they found out the number they began to call [Nichole], and I’m assuming they began to make threats against our family.”

Two weeks after arriving in New York, Nichole left.

Oregon’s dark secrets

Victim advocates, service providers and government officials involved in the issue say sex trafficking thrives in Oregon thanks to portions of state law, a flourishing legal sex industry and the Interstate 5 corridor, which allows traffickers to travel easily with victims north to Seattle and south through Portland and Los Angeles.

The state constitution contains a broad free expression clause, and Oregon courts have upheld the clause as allowing for nudity in public as a form of expression. Additional laws dictate that Oregon cities cannot zone adult business differently than other establishments.

One consequence of these laws is the proliferation of strip clubs; Portland has the highest number of such clubs per capita in the United States, according to Priceonomics, a data gathering firm in San Francisco.

Swanson said customers can physically interact with dancers at the clubs. “People are told in Vegas that if you want to touch the girls then go up to Oregon.”

She said both the clubs and massage parlors mix legal and illegal activity, making it difficult to track down the latter.

Large cities sometimes appear to face the biggest sex trafficking crisis, but it occurs in rural communities, too, said Weaver. Small towns may not have the same ability to track the number of victims and that skews people’s perception of the problem.

Big sporting events in Eugene, such as University of Oregon football games and next year’s U.S. Olympic trials for track and field, bring pimps to town with prostitutes “to service the crowds,” said Brian.

Adding another sphere of exploitation is digital technology. Swanson said that as soon as law enforcement shines a light on illegal activity in one digital space, “it scatters and goes to another.” Traffickers now are using dating apps, social media and even chat rooms on video games to sell pornography and recruit victims.

Brian added that pornography, either in print or online, “desensitizes people to the actual reality of a victim’s life.”

‘You’re a piece of dirt’

The Owens still don’t know the details of how their daughter became a victim. But Brian has become an expert on the patterns of perpetrators.

The pimp, initially a perceived boyfriend, often introduces the victim to someone at a sex club.

He might say, “Do me a favor, sit with that guy over there,” or “I owe this guy money; it’s going to be one time.”

“Once you do one sexual favor, that’s it: He’s got ya,” said Brian. “Because he knows you are a person of moral substance, or should be, and you went against that. So now I’ll tell your parents. You can’t go back. You’re a piece of dirt — nobody wants you.”

First there’s the building up, he said, the “I love you, I love you, come clubbing with me, ride in the car, I’ll take you to dinner, buy you stuff.”

Then comes the drubbing. “And the drubbing is horrible.”

Perpetrators, victims

A 2018 report on human trafficking in Oregon presented to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights indicates traffickers in the state range from small-time solo operators to loose networks of criminals to highly sophisticated criminal organizations that operate internationally.

There’s a growing number of white nationalist gangs involved in trafficking — in Portland and across the country, according to Weaver.

Along with acting the role of a boyfriend, pimps may lure women and young girls with promises of modeling, waitressing or dancing jobs.

“Pimps know whom to target and what to say and are super smooth,” said Swanson.

Men and boys are trafficked for sex, but women and girls make up the majority of victims, who “come in all shapes and sizes and from all economic backgrounds,” Swanson said.

Weaver knew a woman who earned six figures before becoming a victim. But, she added, if someone is struggling financially, it makes her more likely to be pushed into something. Individuals with past histories of sexual abuse, such as Nichole suffered, or domestic violence are more vulnerable.

Early trauma means an individual might not know what a safe and healthy bond looks like, said Michelle Sideroff, a counselor at Northwest Catholic Counseling Center who previously worked at a rape crisis center. So the abuse “feels normal.”

Homeless and runaway youths and those who’ve spent time in the foster care system also have an increased risk.

In Oregon, where most victims are U.S. citizens, sex trafficking disproportionately effects Native Americans, Latinos, African Americans, people who have disabilities, and lesbian, gay and transgender individuals.

Swanson said she’s recently seen more victims who’ve become addicted to drugs. An addiction tethers an individual more tightly to the perpetrator, who’s also their supplier.

It takes victims of domestic violence an average of seven times practicing and trying to leave their perpetrator before they are able to stay away for good, said Swanson. “And sex trafficking has been labeled domestic violence on steroids.”

Swanson added that “chains of the mind are so much stronger than physical chains.”

Even after they leave, many will struggle for years; there are studies showing some survivors have post-traumatic stress disorder levels similar to veterans after war.

Though she’s known trafficking victims who’ve been murdered, Swanson also has seen the potential for hope. “I’ve watched people heal and move on with their life — become lawyers, teachers, leaders.”

Survivors “are some of the most resilient, brilliant, powerful people I’ve ever met,” agreed Weaver. “They’ve gone through a lot and are so tough. It’s amazing to witness when folks can see their own value.”

Not yet fully free

“Our story is sort of a success story,” said Brian.

Early one Sunday morning he was woken up by a phone call from Nichole.

“Dad, can you come get me?”

When he arrived at the nearby strip mall minutes later, his daughter was in the fetal position and close to emaciated.

He took her home, gave her a meal. She talked a little.

Within three hours, the familiar calls and threats began.

Then she was gone.

But Brian thinks it was a turning point. It seemed she’d come to realize that maybe she was no longer in control but that “the person who didn’t want anyone to get the rebound was still in there.”

That awareness eventually enabled her to get away from the perpetrators — but not completely away from the trauma. Now in her 30s, she struggles with self-doubt from her years “being beat down,” said Brian.

Progress in the state

Oregon has made some strides in addressing sex trafficking over the past several years.

Since Swanson took her job four years ago, state officials have established sex trafficking task forces in 12 of the state’s 36 counties. This has led to a renewed crackdown on pimps and buyers and the identification of hundreds of survivors.

Swanson is trying to work out a law that would ensure adults aren’t charged with prostitution when they are in fact victims of sex trafficking. Some counties have courts that will drop charges if a woman shows she’s been receiving victim services. Since a criminal record puts up roadblocks to housing and jobs, survivors of sex trafficking have said a clean record is critical to leaving the life for good.

The Multnomah County Sex Trafficking Collaborative was established 10 years ago to bring together existing services to support survivors, aid law enforcement and raise awareness.

Catholic Diane McKeel first learned about the scope of sex trafficking locally while running for Multnomah County commissioner in 2008. She’d go on to serve two terms and make the issue a priority during her tenure.

“I think overall it’s gotten better since then,” said McKeel, who attends Mass at The Grotto in Northeast Portland. “We have more people, more organizations working on the issue and related legislation at the state level.”

Swanson believes there is a great need for more safe housing options and juvenile detox facilities for survivors.

She’d also like to see additional educational efforts emerge in youth organizations, churches and schools.

In the Archdiocese of Portland, there’s a unit on sex trafficking in the Catholic high schools. And Marist High School in Eugene and St. Mary’s Academy in Portland have clubs that boost awareness about the issue.

Many gifts

Every month, in all weather, the Owens lead an anti-trafficking vigil at the entrance to the Shoppes at Gateway, a Springfield mall near I-5. Nichole’s perpetrator first targeted her while she worked at a mall.

Between 10-20 vigilgoers typically show up. They hold signs with phrases such as “Children are not 4 sale” and “End slavery.”

“Our No. 1 goal is to educate people that this is happening here,” said Brian. He wishes more people would join the vigil, but he’s heartened by the recent uptick in honks and waves of support. Occasionally people will stop and ask questions.

“When I’m out there with signs and there’s honking going on and I see children in the car, I’m always hopeful that they’re going, ‘Oh, Mommy, what does that mean? Why would someone do that to somebody?’” said Alice. “I hope that opens up a conversation.”

At the close of the 30-minute vigil, participants clasp hands and pray.

The Owens’ prayer for Nichole is that someday she’ll see the beauty that’s within her, that she’ll remember and believe in who she is — “that person who tucks everybody in,” said Brian.

Their prayer is that “she realizes the many gifts she has,” he said. “They are tremendous.”

Get help

The National Human Trafficking Hotline, for support or to report a tip: 1-888-373-7888 or text BeFree (233733)

For the Portland metro area, contact Call to Safety: 503-235-5333, which can help individuals connect to services in the region. 

Vigil for victims

An anti-human trafficking vigil takes place the first Sunday of every month from 1:30-2 p.m. at the entrance to the Shoppes at Gateway in Springfield. The next vigil is June 7.



How Catholics can prevent exploitation, support victims

Molly McDade-Hood is the human trafficking sergeant for Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. She’s also a member of Holy Redeemer Parish in North Portland and mother of three who sees her work as a vocation. Her suggestions:

— Model healthy relationships.

— Assist others who do not have their basic needs met.

— Have open communication with children, discussing healthy sexual activity in an age-appropriate way.

— If a young person doesn’t have a positive adult in his or her life, be that person.

— Don’t shame individuals who might be victims but empower and assist them to make healthier choices. Change may not be as fast as you’d like, but be patient and understand that “you did not walk in their shoes,” said McDade-Hood.