Curry County residents Genevieve Wilson and Jackalene Antunes are working to help victims of human trafficking, a situation that is increasingly becoming apparent in Southern Oregon.
Soroptimist International, of which Wilson is a member, is trying to educate the public that it’s not just a Third World occurrence, while Antunes, the director of Wally’s House in Gold Beach, interviews children in abusive situations with an ear now fine-tuned to the lingo of the sexually abused.
It is unknown if there are young children from Curry County who have been caught up in the illegal activity, but with awareness comes a more attentive ear when counselors interview at-risk youth, Wilson said.
“One thing that always shocks people is that they get hold of these kids — the target group is boys aged 11 to 13 and 10- to 14-year-old girls,” Wilson said.
“There’s not as much money in drugs anymore as there is in human trafficking. They take a young child and on a good night, can make $3,000 to $5,000.”
Coercion and ‘love’
The young kids are often befriended by a man — although incidences involving women exist, as well — who eventually bring them in under their control.
They reassure a child’s insecurities, drive a wedge between them and friends and family, buy them clothes and ultimately bring them into the underworld of illegal sex trafficking. They keep the children there using threats and abuse.
“I moved her way out in the country or to another city,” one trafficker admitted on the Rebecca Bender Initiative website, where a Grants Pass trafficking victim is trying to educate people about the problem.
“At first, I felt excited to be in a new adventure, a new town,” his survivor said. “After a while, I felt I had no one to turn to, nowhere to go.”
The tale is common.
“He even controlled who I called on my cell,” another victim wrote. “I felt sick to my stomach as he read my text messages wondering if the smallest thing would tick him off.”
Or, “I threatened to hurt people she loved,” one abuser admitted. “And, I knew he was capable of this. The abuse was a small price to pay to keep them safe.”
The children themselves lie to their parents, are reported as runaways or suddenly disappear.
Sexual predators then use the internet — it leaves no paper trail and any action derived from it is more difficult to prosecute in court — to lure adults to hotel rooms for sexual acts with minors. They’re becoming more mobile, too, using campers and parking at large festivals at which they send the children out to lure in customers.
“It’s the oldest way people have made money,” Antunes said. “The sad thing is, the victims keep getting younger. People watch to have a child sexually abused on the internet.”
If a child tries to run away and is captured, they are often branded on the hand, between thumb and first finger, a lingering reminder of who “owns” them and the punishment to follow if they try to escape again.
“It’s everywhere,” Wilson said. “We’re trying to save lives here.”
While Atunes looks for clues in their speech, stories and body language, she is also close to having Wally’s House certified so physicians can physically evaluate possible victims to determine if they have been sexually assaulted.
Wilson and Antunes hope to bring a presentation to local schools to spread awareness of the problem, which is increasing across the United States. As in the illegal drug trade, Interstate 5 is a common travel route for traffickers, but Highway 101 is another.
Wally’s house, at 94166 Eighth St. in Gold Beach, is a non-profit organization that takes tips from law enforcement, teachers and others that a child might be in trouble at home or with relatives nearby. Through forensic interviewing techniques, they can determine if a child is being abused and needs to enter the foster care system, or even groomed by someone to hit the streets as a sex worker.
“It’s a family business in a lot of ways,” Antunes said.
“Unfortunately, a lot of children don’t know,” Wilson concurred. “They might have an aunt bring them in (to the sex trade).”
The horror stories abound. Increasingly, so do the stories of survivors.
The Rebecca Bender Initiative in Grants Pass offers hope to those who want out — if they can get out.
The number of victims — many of them not yet teenagers — are often too scared to talk to authorities. They might be too scared to talk to their parents — and in some cases, their parents are the perpetrators.
With budget cuts at the state and county levels, Josephine County was forced to close its Southern Oregon High Tech Crimes Force three years ago, and as of six months ago, didn’t have any detectives specializing in sex crimes. Medford has three who address sex crimes; of those, one deals in human trafficking.
According to Wilson, a woman named Ella Smillie — she doesn’t know if that’s her real name — has a bounty on her head as a sex trafficking survivor who has brought the issue into the national domain.
“In one 24-hour period, I could end up being forced to sleep with five men,” she told Grants Pass reporters last year. “Sometimes I could be forced to sleep with 12 men. You can sell drugs once, but you can sell a girl over and over again.”
There are about 100,000 young children involved in the trade in the United States, according to the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking. In 2016, 72 cases were reported in Oregon, of which 51 were sexual in nature. Other types of trafficking include slave labor and sex.
Of those 72, 61 were girls.
And officials believe those numbers don’t represent the extent of the underreported crime.
Those trying to escape their captors, or who have information about the crime, can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888.373.7888. Visit the Rebecca Bender Initiative at www.rebeccabender.org.