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KM: My name is Kelly Mangaracina and I am King County’s Commercially Sexually Exploited Children’s Task Force Coordinator and Program Manager. I attempt to keep everybody who is addressing the issue of sex trafficking of children at the table, talking to each other, coordinating our response so that we can provide a better continuum of care for our young people and hopefully not duplicate resources.
JH: Do we have a child sex trafficking problem in King County?
We have a child sex trafficking problem in Seattle, in King County, in Washington state, and in the United States. There is no community that is immune to this issue. if you look at the federal definition for purposes of kids, it’s a very simple definition.
You need to have a young person under the age of 18 and a commercial sex act and a commercial sex act is anytime there’s a sexual encounter in exchange for something of good or value. That goes up to a young person who is 17 and 364 days of age. As soon as the young person turns 18 we need to prove that they engaged in that commercial sex act because of force, fraud or coercion. But if they’re under the age of 18 we simply need to prove that there is a commercial sex act and that they are under the age of 18 and that is child sex trafficking. We don’t need to prove that there’s a third party pimp or trafficker simply that there is a commercial sex act and the individual is under the age of 18.
Anything of good or value is exchanged for a sexual encounter and that would be money, actual financial exchange for sexual intercourse. It would also be the exchange of drugs for that sexual encounter. It could be a sandwich in exchange for that sexual encounter. It could be a place to stay for that sexual encounter. So oftentimes what we have is youth who are experiencing homelessness, who are participating in what we could call survival sex. They’re doing what they need to do to survive and they are victims of child sex trafficking.
JH: Survival sex is a termed I’ve never heard before.
It is young people having sex in order to meet their basic survival needs, their needs for food, shelter, clothing, or I’d argue if there’s an addiction at play also for drugs.
For years we criminalized this behavior and called those young people prostitutes. We were charging them with prostitution for a crime that they couldn’t actually consent to do. We are charging 13- 14- 15-year-old children with prostitution. Fortunately we collectively have learned from our mistakes and we now see those children appropriately – as victims of commercial sexual exploitation, exploitation, victims of commercial sex trafficking. And those young people are seen as victims and no longer stigmatized or labeled as criminals in that way.
So here’s a little analogy that we like to use. If you have a 40-year-old soccer coach in 40-year-old soccer coach has a sexual relationship with 14-year-old on the soccer team and the 14-year-old says, but no, I love soccer coach. I want to be having sex with soccer coach. I’m down with this. This is what I want. Everybody universally as agreed that a crime has occurred that the soccer coach is the bad actor in this scenario and that Kiddo has done nothing wrong. Kiddo should not be charged with anything and all we should be doing is getting that young person connected to the services that they need.
If we change that script a little, just a little bit, people get confused. Same 40-year-old soccer coach, same 14-year-old young person, exact same sex act occurring, but instead of the kid being on the soccer team, kid is now experiencing homelessness and at the end of the sex act kidded receives $50 in. Kid says, no, you don’t understand. I wanted to do it. I wanted the $50 I’m down with this. Historically, what we did is we said, oh, kid should be charged with prostitution. Kid should be put in juvenile detention. Kid is the bad actor in this scenario.
If kid on the soccer team can’t consent to this exploitation for love, why are you saying that kid who’s experiencing homelessness can consents of this exploitation for money? When in doubt, take the money out. If it’s exploitation, it’s exploitation. And we fortunately opened up our eyes and said, you know what? You’re right. A 14 year old cannot consent. They can’t consent for love. They cannot consent for money.
JH: Who are these men?
I like to say they’re not the creepy dude you cross the street to avoid. They look like everybody else. The data we have from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and men charged with the commercial sexual abuse of a minor are men you would see as you walk down the streets of downtown Seattle, there are men in suits. They’re men in ties. They are men who are in business. They are in travel, they’re in it. They are in the military. They look like everybody else.
The cases that we do see with our prosecutor’s office are oftentimes well educated, privileged men who are buying access to young people who are doing what they need to do to survive. And we have a disproportionate number of privileged individuals buying are more marginalized individuals and to put a very striking, shocking spin to it and when we have a real child being harmed in charged cases from the King County prosecuting attorney’s Office on commercial sexual abuse of a minor 52% of the time that child is African American. The African American population of King County is nowhere close to 52%. This is some radical disproportionality in which we have privileged disproportionately white men buying access to our marginalized youth of color.
JH: How does that happen?
I work with an amazing survivor and she is mixed race and she made a comment one time that the men purchased her because she didn’t look like their daughter. They were specifically targeting the “Other”. I don’t have actual data to back that up. That is one survivor story, but that narrative speaks volumes of truth to me.
JH: What don’t people know that you think they should?
It happens here and it’s harmful, but we can help, but now we need to look at the why it’s happening and how it’s happening and how we can interrupt it. In King County we have great free classes that are available for anyone who’s interested in taking them at our website, www.kingcounty.csec.org We have five different trainings that are all free and all open to the public.
There are lots of myths and misconceptions about what sex trafficking is, and if we don’t have good information, we do ourselves a disservice.
We need people to be informed of what the actual issue is and once they know what it is, how to respond appropriately in a compassionate and judgment-free manner.
Here’s a question for you. Do LGBTQ youth experience homelessness at a disproportionately higher rate? Yes. Are homeless youth more likely to engage in things like survival sex and be more at risk for trafficking? Yes, so it makes sense that there’s a disproportionately high rate of LGBTQ youth who are trafficked and we really need to respond in a trauma informed, supportive, nonjudgmental way when we come across youth. Anyone can be exploited – boys, girls, trans youth, youth of all racial ethnicities, youth of all demographics, youth of all education levels, youth of all socioeconomic statuses. Any youth can be exploited.
When we ask the young people themselves, “Have you ever traded sex for money, drugs, food, shelter, or something you needed to survive?” And they say, yes. About half of our yesses come from girls and about half of our yesses come from boys. So if we’re only thinking that trafficking survivors, our girls were missing half of our victims who are in need of services. This happens to our boys, this happens to our trans youth, this happens to our gender nonconforming youth. We really need to open our eyes that this can happen to anyone.
There are some families where you grew up in, you’re expected to be a doctor. Some families where you grew up and you’re expected to be a lawyer. Some families you grew up in, you’re expected to be a teacher. There are some families where you grew up in, you’re expected to be in the sex trades. No judgment on that. That’s just the family business. There’s also family-based exploitation that happens when maybe mom or dad’s addiction is so extreme that they are sharing access to the young person for financial assistance to get those drugs. Or it might be that mom and dad need money for rent and so their trading access to their child for that purpose. People really haven’t looked into that and really thought about it much, but what we’re finding is that it is very prevalent in cases of sex trafficking, that there have been some family trafficking as well.
Poverty is a really great trafficker. When you do not have the means to make ends meet, you’ll do anything. We live in an area with very high-income inequality and we have people with access to lots of wealth and people who are barely scraping by and it is ripe for trafficking.
JH: Do you think it’s getting worse now that there’s that disparity in the greater Seattle area?
That is a great question and my answer is, I don’t know. Seattle is oftentimes ranked as one of the worst cases for traffic or were cities for trafficking. And could it be because it’s actually that bad? Maybe. We are a port city. We are near an international border. We’re on the I-5 corridor. We’re part of the circuit. You have Vancouver, BC, Seattle, Portland, and Las Vegas. We have high income disproportionality. All of those could be why we have a really bad problem.
The pushback I would give is in Seattle and in King County for the most part, comparatively speaking, we’re what we are relatively well aware of this issue through free training and fabulous organizations. So we have a more engaged community. We are identifying more cases, we’re prosecuting more cases and we’re connecting more survivors to services. So it looks like we have a really bad problem. I’d argue that there are cities out there who have no trafficking cases, not because they don’t have trafficking, but because they’re not aware and they’re not looking for it. So on one level, the fact that we are finding all of these cases, that’s a really good thing. It means we’re aware of it. And we’re connecting our survivors to much needed services. Now do we need more services? Yes, but we’re doing good with the what we have at the moment.