Federal grant helps Snohomish County target child-sex trade

EVERETT — She should have been studying for high school finals or making plans with her friends for the winter break.

Instead the 17-year-old girl was sitting in a Lynnwood apartment negotiating a price for sex with a stranger who found her through an advertisement on Backpage.com.

The stranger turned out to be an undercover Lynnwood police officer. The girl was arrested and later pleaded guilty to prostitution. Now Snohomish County prosecutors are going after the 29-year-old woman who drove the girl to the apartment. The woman has been found in the company of other minors engaged in prostitution around the Puget Sound region. Detectives suspect that the woman isn’t the boss, but may be a middle-manager in a sex-trafficking ring.

It likely will be a challenge to prosecute the woman. In most of these cases the young victims won’t cooperate with authorities. They’re taught not to trust police or social workers. Instead, business-savvy pimps have promised them love, security and a family. They’ve been manipulated, threatened and assaulted. Some are recruited as young as 12. Most are middle-school aged girls, too young to legally consent to sex.

“These kids have been seduced by a very manipulative, charismatic and intelligent man who sells them a story about what life will be like. They prostitute for him. They realize life isn’t what they’ve been led to believe, but by then they don’t know how to get out,” said Dusty Olson, advocate and volunteer coordinator for Providence’s Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse.

Authorities in Snohomish County are hoping a $450,000 federal grant will help them go after pimps and other adults profiting from the child sex trade.

Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe was notified last week that his office was one of 20 law enforcement agencies nationwide to receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The Child Sexual Predator Program grants totaled more than $9.3 million. The money is aimed at protecting communities from child sexual predators.

For Snohomish County, that means dedicating a deputy prosecutor, detective and legal secretary to tracking down and prosecuting people using and profiting from child sex workers.

“This money is going to help us go out there, hunt these guys down and help those kids,” Roe said.

Authorities say it is rare that these young prostitutes are working in the sex trade on their own. There is usually a pimp controlling them, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Lisa Paul said.

Because of the tactics used to manipulate and groom these young people, it’s often difficult to identify the pimps and hold them accountable. The young people rarely come forward to report that they are victims of child rape and are even more reluctant to identify who is controlling them. The victims tend to move around and aren’t necessarily standing on a street corner.

For those reasons, it is unclear how many kids are being abused in Snohomish County, Paul said.

“I think it’s a huge opportunity for us to number one, find out the scope of the problem and number two, do something about it,” she said.

Under a new law, that could mean prison sentences for people buying sex from minors and up to 10 years in prison for those promoting child prostitution. Previously, stealing livestock was considered a more serious offense in Washington than buying sex from teen-age prostitutes.

Detectives know that the Everett-area is on a circuit that includes Seattle and Tacoma. Pimps bring girls here to work and Snohomish County teens end up turning tricks in Seattle. Some are taken across state lines into California and Nevada, authorities said.

In addition to a unit dedicated to these crimes, the grant also will be used to for technical resources, such as forensic computer programs to compile evidence against the pimps. They often use cell phones, online advertising and other technology to run their sex-trade enterprises.

“It’s much less of a street-based business,” Olson said. “The Internet has changed the face of prostitution.”

Attorney General Rob McKenna and attorneys general from 44 other states sent a letter Wednesday asking the classified ads website Backpage.com to explain how it monitors postings for adult services. Hundreds of ads are for prostitution. The attorneys general allege that the site attracts people who engage in child sexual assault.

Olson said she is encouraged that the county will have a dedicated prosecutor and detective to seek out these crimes. The victims are a difficult population to reach, Olson said. She serves as the co-chairwoman for the Sexual Exploitation and Intervention Network of Snohomish County.

The group has been meeting for several years to adapt existing social and health services for at-risk youth and victims of child sex trafficking. These young people have been highly traumatized and often need very unique services, Olson said.

“We’ve all been in this fight against people who sexually violate children,” Roe said. “To get this grant is an enormous shot in the arm for us.”

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

Where to find help

If you or someone you know has been a victim of a sexual assault, call Providence Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse 24-hour crisis line 425-252-4800 or 800-656-4673.

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