This guest Slog post is by Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess.
This Thursday, the Women’s Funding Alliance is hosting a forum at Town Hall on the sex trafficking of local girls at 7:00 p.m. The keynote speaker, Deborah Richardson, helped organize women in Atlanta to stop the sexual exploitation of children in that city. She has a powerful story to share with Seattle.
And our city has its own story to share. In 2008, my first year on the City Council, I sat at my desk and read a city-commissioned study about the 300 to 500 prostituted children in King County. The numbers and stories in the report shocked me.
Nearly all of these children—some as young as 13—are coerced into this practice by predatory pimps and gangs. Once lured in, it is hard for them to escape this violent, abusive environment. It is equivalent to slavery.
The children lured into street and Internet prostitution are victims, not criminals. State Representative Mary Lou Dickerson (D-36) sponsored a bill to allow diversion of juveniles involved in prostitution away from the criminal justice system. The measure passed unanimously in 2009. Penalties for the johns who prey on these girls and boys have also increased.
Seattle police officers who work in this area have fundamentally changed the way they view individuals caught up in street and Internet prostitution. The “Vice Unit” is now called the “Vice and High Risk Victims Unit”—and this name change isn’t just packaging. These officers and detectives have organized seminars and special training sessions on this topic and have helped raise money for services for the victims.
A unique partnership of the City, King County, foundations and hundreds of private citizens has funded The Bridge, a new pilot residential recovery program that offers support to these individuals. It is only the fourth such program of its kind in the United States. I’m proud to say that, rather than juvenile detention or returning to their pimps, there is a now a third option for these kids. But we can’t offer a place for all the children who are rescued by the police, let alone those kids we haven’t found yet. There is much more work to do.
Thursday’s event will detail the road ahead of us. Responding to Ms. Richardson will be a panel of locals familiar with the problem, including the author of the 2008 report, the program director of The Bridge and representatives from the Seattle Police Department and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. C.R. Douglas of the Seattle Channel will moderate.
I invite you to come and listen—and then add your own response to Seattle’s story.