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Human Trafficking: Law Enforcement


A series on human trafficking begins with a sheriff who works to make a difference in some of the most heinous crimes committed against children in the Portland region. It is a fight to stop the criminals
and another to gain awareness of the issue.

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playing backgammon
Working hours for the most vulnerable. © Foreign Interest

For more information:
US State Department Trafficking Report

Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel
Polaris Project
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Portland

Fighting Crime and Denial


By Sherry Harbert, Foreign Interest


When no one applied for a vacant position within the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department, Deputy Sergeant Keith Bickford decided to volunteer. Bickford soon found himself immersed in the dark world of human trafficking. For almost two years now, Bickford has attempted to bring that world out of the darkness for Oregonians and most importantly, the victims.

Bickford speaks publicly about the growing problem of trafficking to whoever will listen. He’s testified numerous times with the Oregon legislature to increase their awareness of the crimes committed within this often ignored world. And he works diligently with support groups and agencies to help the victims. The victims are usually women and increasingly younger and younger girls.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Bickford. “The biggest battle is making people aware of the issue. We’re all about disasters here and saving the world, but this is happening here.”

Bickford’s responsibilities require him to work with many different agencies and organizations. The task force works with coalitions of federal, state and local law enforcement; the legal community and courts; and a wide-range of victim advocates and healthcare professionals. But the most difficult part of his job is working with the victims. Most are fearful of law enforcement as they are the ones usually arrested and considered prostitutes. Bickford must gain their trust to help them in the first of many stages of recovery which includes escaping from its bonds. In this world, all the victim knows of trust is from a gun or fist wielded by her captor. There are no thoughts of the future─there is only survival in the moment.


Defining the Law


Bickford said federal law considers any one under the age of 18 a victim of trafficking. Bickford is emphatic about the reality of trafficking, especially when it’s confused with prostitution.

It is a challenge that Bickford hopes to overcome. He testified before a Senate Judiciary committee last December to push for understanding and laws to help victims.

“When I started, I didn’t have any training,” he told the committee members. “I was told to find victims. Once I began to find them, I discovered a dark, horrible world.” Bickford said many of the victims are underage and afraid to report. He told the committee that the population is mostly girls. Some girls are trafficked state-to-state and others internationally.

It has been a tough road for Bickford and the others as part of the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force (OHTTF). Portland is becoming an epicenter for human trafficking. Situated along the Interstate-5 system that runs along the West Coast, the highway creates an easy transit system for traffickers. Oregon’s relaxed laws on sex are a calling card for many in the sex business. There are more strip clubs per capita in Portland than any other city in the U.S.

Trafficking is intertwined throughout this hidden world, from clubs to the internet.

The U.S. State Department defines the crime of trafficking as the recruitment, transportation and forced servitude of individuals. Sex trafficking is a commercial sex act that is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such acts is under the age of 18.

Since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), the U.S. State Department has issued an annual report on trafficking throughout the world. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the 2009 version of the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report last month in a ceremony with Congressional leaders. She thanked them for their support for the legislation needed to combat trafficking through partnerships around the world. This year’s report warns of the impact of the global financial crisis is leading to an increase in trafficking. The TIP used UN International Labor Organization estimates to find 1.39 million victims suffer from sex trafficking around the world. The report categorizes nations within three tiers of compliance with the TVPA for accountability, though it does not prevent trafficking in nations that have a minimum of standards recognizing trafficking with established laws.

Estimates in the U.S. place the number of trafficking victims between 17,500 and 300,000. The U.S. has not been listed in the report’s tiers.

Congress has continued to support the intent of the 2000 Act through legislation and funding. Last December, a bi-partisan effort carried the passage of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (H.R. 7311) to provide funding for task forces across the country and support for victims.

The law and support funding are critical to saving victims. Siovhan Sheridan-Ayala, a Portland immigration attorney who works with some of the trafficking victims, told members of the Oregon legislature that “these are resource-intensive cases. Their spirits are broken. Then there’s all the other issues.” Sheridan-Ayala said the violence and brainwashing is immense. “Undoing that damage takes a lot of resources.”


The Stages of Slavery


Trafficked victims rarely tell authorities the truth out of fear and brainwashing. Girls and sometimes boys are swept into the sex trade by many ways. Poverty, isolation, domestic and sexual abuse all contribute to the vulnerability of individuals both in the U.S. and internationally.

In the U.S., recruitment is usually done over the internet and in schools. Bickford testified before the legislature that he is noticing recruitment in both middle and high schools throughout the region. “High school is a great way to recruit, the pimps tell me,” said Bickford. “They can hide in plain site and get girls.” Bickford explained that the pimps begin to prepare their victims through a series of contacts. “The don’t care about money. There’s no separation of economic levels,” said Bickford of the pimps. “They look for girls who are vulnerable and work on them by building up their esteem.”

The stages used by the pimps begin with special attention given to their victims. They constantly tell them how “hot” they are as they pull them into their world. They convince the girls that they are the only one who will care for them. The pimp can begin as a boyfriend, but the relationship will take a brutal turn.

The girls are raped, usually by multiple men. They are beaten if they fight back. They are threatened with beatings and death. Some have their families threatened if they try to run. By the time the girls feel there is no other hope, they concede and obey the pimps. The girls are monitored constantly. Most are locked up when they are not being pimped. They are beaten by the pimps if they don’t bring in enough money. They are beaten by some of the johns they are forced to service.

Slowly, each girl loses all identity. That is just what the pimps want. It is also what makes trafficking one of the most difficult areas in law enforcement. The victims do not open up to authorities. In fact, they usually lie whenever confronted. The fear and loss of trust are too deep.

Internationally trafficked individuals are even more vulnerable.

“The U.S. is a lure,” said Bickford. “It’s so easy for people to say, ‘you can have a better life in the U.S. Come on over’.” Bickford says that once they enter the U.S., legally or without legal paperwork, they are threatened with jail and death. If they cannot speak English, they are even more at risk. “I’m also finding that many women can’t go back. They tell me that it is an honor issue and if they go back they will be killed.” In many countries, rape is blamed on the female so they are treated like criminals or a male in their family will kill them to defend the family.


The Human Costs


Bickford says that’s why he works hard to push for support services for trafficking victims. If the victims are from another country, he builds a case for asylum. The U.S. issues Bickford has built a list of immigration lawyers, many who will provide some pro bono services, to help.

Funding is vital in the multi-faceted response to victims, if they are fortunate enough to be rescued. With the funding cuts throughout the federal and state levels, it is difficult to get the money needed to help the girls gain back a life and future. “Everyone is cutting positions, in services, ESL, job training,” said Bickford. “Even with the Task Force, a lot of people are getting cuts in their departments.”

The OHTTF operates through grant funding. Local, state and federal law enforcement all use grant funds to operate internal and multi-agency operations in trafficking. In February, a coalition of agencies headed by the FBI rescued seven underage girls in an overnight sting operation throughout the Portland-metro area. The FBI heads the Innocence Lost Task Force, much like the OHTTF on the local level. The two Forces work together in partnership with other law enforcement agencies to bring stronger cases for federal indictments. U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut announced the arrest and superseding indictment last month of a man and women for trafficking a 16-year-old girl in Washington and Oregon.

A federal trafficking conviction carries a mandatory 10-year sentence to a maximum life imprisonment.

Getting cases to the federal level is one of Bickford’s constant goals. “For domestic cases with underage victims there is a potential to push it up to the Feds,” he said. “For international, it’s always to the Feds. The processes are different, but we’re always trying to send them to the Fed level for broader prosecution.”

Bickford says education is key to helping prevent future trafficking victims in the state. He contends it will take a concerted effort to get it into school curriculum. He said it’s important for both girls and boys to understand. He is also reaching out to colleges and churches to build awareness and gain support. Students at Pacific University have launched a club to learn about ways to combat trafficking.

The OHTTF is gaining ground on other fronts. Multnomah County launched its Oregonians Against Trafficking Humans campaign last year to organize local agencies, groups and individuals. It is overseen by the OHTTF. Their first event was a day-long conference that brought together a myriad of people working to combat trafficking. Bickford witnessed a coalition building on the response side of the issue with a dozen speakers and breakout sessions for professional and private citizens that he’s worked toward on the law enforcement side. The issue is also gaining traction with the City Club of Portland. The educational and research-based civic organization has featured a dozen monthly presentations on human trafficking with more to come in the future.

Bickford’s core work continues to focus on the victims who suffer now. The faces of those he’s found mingle daily with the ones he hopes to save. “I believe there are countless victims around Oregon. I will find each one.”


October 12, 2009
© 2009, Foreign Interest


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