Rise in sex crimes involving children sparks concern

A recent nationwide sting by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies that placed Portland second in the nation for the number of rescued child prostitutes has local officials concerned about the ramifications for Jackson County.

"We are seeing more adults traveling to Southern Oregon to have sex with kids who they've met online," said Sgt. Josh Moulin, commander of the Southern Oregon High-Tech Crimes Task Force, adding he's seen ads on Craigslist from teens offering themselves for sale.

Runaways trading sex for survival, parents trading their children for drugs or money, older adults preying upon curious kids on the Internet — all these scenarios can end up as a death sentence for a child, said Marlene Mish, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center.

"Child sex trafficking is the most hidden form of child abuse in our country today," Mish said.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 100,000 to 300,000 children are prostituted annually. They service between four to 10 customers a day, 1,460 to 3,600 transactions per child per year.

"To call it child prostitution is a very euphemistic way of getting around the brutality," Mish said. "These children are raped, beaten and enslaved."

The problem of prostituted children is growing because of funding cuts to mental health services, a lack of residential care programs for youths and a child welfare system that is unable to stop runaways, local officials said.

Most of the estimated 1.6 million children nationwide who flee or are kicked out of their homes each year will return within a week. But nearly a third of those who remain runaways will trade sex for food, drugs or a place to stay, according to studies cited in a story published in the New York Times last fall.

Nicole Clark, 17, of Ashland spoke of her experiences as a teen runaway in the article. Clark ran away from a Medford group home at age 14. Living on the street and desperate, she eventually accepted a young man's offer of a place to stay. He became her boyfriend, and then her pimp. He threatened to kick her out of the apartment if she did not have sex with several of his friends in exchange for money. Clark's downward spiral continued for 14 months until she escaped from another pimp who kept her locked in his garage apartment for months, she said.

Mary Ferrell, director of the Maslow Project, a Medford outreach center for homeless youths, said word on the street is that "survival sex" incidents are on the rise.

"It's just so scary," Ferrell said. "Their lives are literally at risk. The girls are just convinced they are going to die."

Teens are reluctant to discuss their experiences. "Prostitution is not the kind of thing that kids are going to willingly self-disclose," she said.

Ferrell is hearing more reports of graffiti on public buildings signaling sex trafficking and prostitution, she said.

Ferrell said she worries about unaccompanied kids who are seen at her center once or twice, and then never show up again.

"We don't know what happens to these kids," she said.

The common assumption that children of inner cities are the ones most often lured into prostitution is a fallacy. Studies show rural children are most at risk. The No. 1 state for recruiting children is Minnesota, Mish said.

"This is big money worldwide and it's attracting people who are making a science out of it," Mish said. "They are going to smaller towns where kids are less sophisticated and more willing to buy a line. That's why it's significant to us."

Deputy District Attorney David Hoppe said Jackson County has had a case "where a mother had her daughter perform sex acts for money." But getting teen prostitution victims to come forward is very difficult, he said.

"Trafficking is a horrible problem in our world," he said.

Human trafficking is a specific charge created in 2006. There have been no trafficking cases filed in Jackson County. But there have been hundreds of cases involving sex offenses committed by adults against minors. These felony charges can carry Measure 11 consequences, said Hoppe.

"Compelling prostitution is a Measure 11 crime and carries a minimum 70-month sentence," he said.

The Southern Oregon High-Tech Crimes Task Force has seen a 29 percent increase in cases involving child pornography and child sexual exploitation over the past year, said Moulin.

In addition to an increase in adult-generated child pornography, children are self-exploiting by "sexting." Teens and pre-teens are posting sexually explicit photos of themselves to social networking venues, and to strangers they have met online, he said.

The Internet is a highly effective tool for predators seeking to seduce children, Mish said.

"If a stranger knocked on your door and asked if he could take your daughter into the bedroom behind closed doors for a few hours, you'd say 'no,'" Mish said. "But we do that with our children when we allow them unsupervised access to the Internet."

Once teens turn 18, they are considered legal adults and face criminal charges if arrested for prostitution. If convicted, the teen gets a sex crimes record and jail time. The adult "john" often gets only a fine. The pimp usually goes free, she said.

"They are victimized and re-victimized," Mish said. "We must stop children who are engaged in criminal behavior without criminalizing the child."

The FBI has determined 90 percent of runaways living on the street were victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse or neglect, Mish said.

"The solution is very simple. To reduce the number of kids on our streets, we need to stop sex abuse in the home," Mish said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Share This Story