Liz Alston, left, and Rebecca Bender helped get a law passed that gets tougher on men who have sex with minors. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell photo - Bob Pennell

Stopping the 'Kiddie Track'

Child sex trafficking will end when the demand does, and local criminal justice officials and anti-trafficking advocates say new legislation should help to quash that demand in Oregon.

Heralded as a significant step in curbing the purchase of children for sex, Senate Bill 673 passed the Oregon House and Senate at the end of June, and is expected to be signed into law by Gov. John Kitzhaber.

An emergency clause in the bill will ensure the penalties for purchasing sex from a minor go into effect immediately, said former Medford resident Liz Alston of Shared Hope International, a nonprofit organization based in Washington state and dedicated to eradicating sex trafficking.

"In many cases these are doctors and teachers and lawyers purchasing these children," said Alston. "Obviously the fine is not a deterrent, because they have the money. But what they don't want is that felony conviction, or to have to register as a sex offender. They don't want their name tarnished in the community."

Oregon is currently one of only nine states in which it is not a felony to purchase sex from a minor, Alston said.

As laws in California and Washington against child sex trafficking were strengthened, law enforcement officials reported the market for sex with children began climbing in Oregon, Alston said. The laxity in child sex trafficking laws made it a haven for pimps bringing prostituted children up the "Kiddie Track" from California to Washington, she added.

Alston said Jackson County's location along the Interstate 5 corridor means on any given weekend she can look at a well-known online site and see 35 girls who are for sale through sex trafficking in the Medford area.

Under the new law, adults can be charged with patronizing a trafficked child if they engage in — or offer or agree to engage in — a paid sex act with a child under the age of 18 or a law enforcement officer who is posing as a minor. The trafficking charge is a Class B felony, with penalties of 30 days in jail, a $10,000 fine and a requirement to attend sex offender treatment programs.

The judge may also require that person to register as a sex offender, said Joel Shapiro, a former prosecutor and lobbyist for the Kids Are Not For Sale in Oregon Coalition, a group of nonprofit organizations such as Shared Hope, police and prosecutors.

A single conviction could lead to a 10-year listing on the registry. A second conviction would lead to a lifetime registry requirement, Shapiro said.

Between 100,000 and 300,000 children are reported missing and/or exploited, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Many are trapped in prostitution, pornography and sexual entertainment industries, becoming victims of sex trafficking through force, fraud or coercion, Alston said.

Shock and denial are common reactions when the topic of the sex trafficking of children is brought up locally, said Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert.

"People here (in Jackson County) think we don't have a problem with children being forced into prostitution," said Heckert. "I know it's happening here. And it's good to have some penalties for when we do catch somebody."

The new law will not require prosecutors to prove the defendant knew the child was under 18, and the defendant won't be able to claim ignorance regarding the child's age, said Heckert.

"This is very beneficial to the state," said Heckert. "When we get these cases, that's the common excuse: 'I didn't know. She doesn't look like a minor.' "

Rogue Valley resident Rebecca Bender knows firsthand the pain of being trafficked. Bender, 29, escaped the sex-trafficking trade after being lured there as a teen by a man she believed loved her. Now an educator on the topic, Bender recently joined Alston in Salem to testify in support of the bill. She has also provided training to local attorneys, law enforcement and justice officials.

"People need to know what it looks like," Bender said. "This is not Thailand. This is a developed nation. They don't want a doped-up girl tied to a bed. They want a girl with a smile slapped on her face, even if it's out of fear, pretending she's there because she wants to be."

Bender is grateful the bill also requires annual training for law enforcement officials and first responders, she said. Because of the dynamics of the sex-trafficking relationship between pimps and child victims, police often think they are responding to a domestic violence call. Even something as innocuous as a theft call can actually be a pimp trying to control a girl by taking her belongings.

"I feel like law enforcement are the very first people to intervene," Bender said. "If we're sending people in with no training in what to look for, no wonder some of our girls are not being rescued sooner."

Heckert, Medford police Deputy Chief Tim Doney and Detective Jim Williams have each attended forums where Bender was a speaker. Doney said the Internet has facilitated and changed the face of prostitution. Current sex-abuse laws covered children under the age of 16 to some extent. But many of the applicable charges were listed as misdemeanors, particularly if the child was a teenager.

Williams said there needs to be a "paradigm shift" in how law enforcement views these crimes, adding he has heard "horror stories" about other agencies who arrested the juvenile for prostitution "and let the guys go," he said.

"That is not something that would happen in Medford," Williams said. "The training is coming. She's not the prostitute, but she's truly the victim because she is being prostituted. I also think it's going to shine a bright light on that false notion that prostitution is a victimless crime."

Williams said that most children prostituted in Jackson County are likely being brought in from out of the area. The pimp sells the girls using force, fear or coercion, he said.

"This is going to give us another tool in our tool belt to hold johns and pimps accountable," he said, adding a pimp in the Portland area was recently sentenced by a judge to 100 years in prison.

Bender said child victims often end up being charged with prostitution, or other crimes such as drug possession and theft that are directly related to her being under the control of her pimp.

"We have lots of children in jail for prostitution in Oregon," Bender said. "She may be charged with robbery because she was in the car with the pimp."

Bender and Alston said gang-related trafficking is on the rise. Bender said that just as there are indicators for gang membership, so too are there things that should tip off an officer that a girl is being trafficked.

"A lot of these girls are being misidentified or mislabeled," Bender said. "When you're finding a girl with a backpack of lingerie and six hotel keys, that should be an indicator. But all too often it's written off as, 'Oh, she's just a slut' or 'she's just a teen prostitute.' "

Bender diagrams for officials the laws that determine what is child sex abuse and those for prostitution. They are the same — until money changes hands, she said. At that point, under the current law, the child loses his or her victim status and becomes criminalized as a prostitute, Bender said.

"She could be 9. She could be 90. That's sad," she said.

Bender also does outreach to local hotels and motels, telling them what to be on the lookout for.

"If you see an older man and a young girl come into the lobby and they don't have any luggage, and they're not looking at each other, and she pays with a credit card she doesn't look old enough to have, that should be a tip-off," she said.

Once the new law takes effect, the child will be legally viewed as a victim, said former Phoenix High School graduate Kelly Cloyd, who is now one of three Multnomah County prosecutors on a human-trafficking team.

"We view them as victims because they are," Cloyd said. "Ninety-nine percent of children who end up in the sex-trafficking trade were previously sexually assaulted."

The new law puts the onus on the johns and the pimps, she said.

"If nobody's buying ..." Cloyd said.

Victims will now be afforded all victim's rights, including rape shield protections, Alston said.

"This means they can testify in court, like other rape victims, from a live video feed," she said. "A lot of pimps or johns will stack the courtroom, making the victim feel uncomfortable or unsafe."

The changes also help take the stigma of prostitution off the child victims, Bender said.

"Many of these girls were lured into prostitution by some guy they loved," she said, adding, "Romeo pimps" carefully groom the girls before they are sold as prostitutes.

"Typically it's a guy who's pretending to be her boyfriend. He's gradually expanding boundaries," Bender said. "Then it feels like your choice. You feel stupid. You put on a lot of self blame."

The idea that minor children could ever be prosecuted for prostitution still boggles Alston's mind. While some children may insist they are choosing prostitution of their own free will, it's a specious argument, she said.

"We don't allow children to buy cigarettes, join the Army or vote," she said. "We don't allow them to do any of these things. Why do we think we can let a child choose to be a prostitute?"

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or

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