Fighting to stop sex trafficking in King County

STraficking2Sex trafficking in King County is on the rise, nearly doubling in 2015 according to an Urban Institute study.

But King County is fighting to stop sex traffickers and buyers in the county and protect the victims of trafficking.

The growing problem came to law enforcement attention when officers on patrol began noticing a growing number of young girls working on the streets. Before long, officers were collecting evidence and bringing it to King County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Val Richey.

“People have this notion that sex trafficking doesn’t happen in the States, that it happens in Asia and other countries,” Richey said. “But the fact is it’s happening every day.”

Working for the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Richey began to collect information that officers, community members and victims of sex trafficking provided. What they found was a high level of violence inflicted upon the women and girls forced into sex by both the buyers and pimps. Many of the girls came from the most vulnerable parts of society. They were homeless, in lower socioeconomic groups, and minorities.

Richey quickly found that the previous model of arresting sex workers was a flawed model. The problem was not the sex workers, who were the victims, but the people paying for sex. King County, along with community partner Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST), began targeting buyers, hospitality services, massage parlors, and business owners.

LogoBEST Alliance works with businesses to identify warning signs of sex trafficking. These can include training hotel staff to recognize if a buyer is renting a room or if a worker is being coerced, Mar Brettmann, Executive Director of Best Alliance, said.

“[King County] trains health inspectors to notice and report businesses with suspicious activities, such as a mattress in a back room, which could suggest employees sleeping or using the building for other activities. They are also trained to notice when an employer controls or hides employees from an inspector,” Richey said.

Through a campaign called Buyer Beware, King County and BEST Alliance created advertisements on targeted websites which would warn buyers of the penalty if they were caught soliciting. Police officers began to focus on arresting buyers while offering shelter, mental health help and job training for sex workers to help them escape their situation.

While the campaign was successful, increasing the number of buyers arrested and decreasing the number of sex workers arrested, Richey knew it was just the beginning.

“We started thinking where do the buyers work? When do they buy?” Richey said.

They found that three-fourths of people who had bought sex met on their company’s property. Buyers would search and set up meetings with a sex worker during the afternoon to set up a meeting after work often on company time and company equipment, Richey said.

Richey said they began thinking about where the business and government community intersected.

“Businesses need to be active in telling their employees that it is wrong,” Richey said. “But King County needs to be a partner on the issue too.”

Last year, King County became a founding member of the BEST Alliance, the first public-private partnership in the nation to work across industries preventing sex trafficking and sex buying.

“We need to send a clear, consistent message that every employer in King County – in both the public and private sectors – is committed to ending slavery and sex trafficking in our community,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said. “Preventing work resources from being used by traffickers is an important, necessary first step. My long-term goal is to call upon our skilled and dedicated employees to determine what each of us can do to help survivors and those who are most vulnerable.”

Find out what you can do to help stop human trafficking in King County and read the County’s Sex Trafficking and Buying Sexual Services Policy.

Find out how you can fight human trafficking view this public service announcement by King County TV.