At a conference room at Bend's St. Charles Medical Center, the room goes silent as a mother relates a story about her young daughter.
"They got her into webcam porn," the mother says. "She was 18, so by law, it's legal. She's in the 'industry' now."
That local mother was one of several dozen people attending a panel discussion titled "Eclipsing Human Trafficking" that took place July 17. With tens of thousands of people expected to descend on Central Oregon before and after the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, local experts say the demand for commercial sex is likely to increase as well. While the focus of Monday's discussion centered around preparation and awareness amid the eclipse influx, that mother's admission highlighted the fact that human trafficking needs no special event to flourish.
Like other young, vulnerable people who become victims of trafficking, the mother explained how a couple the teen met on Tinder lured her into "the life" with promises of things the teen wanted.
"They hooked her with gifts, like lingerie, makeup, anything that an 18... once you're in your teens... anything that teens go crazy over, they hooked her with that. And there's nothing I can do," the mother said.
Monday's panel included a number of local experts on human trafficking, including Nita Belles, organizer of the event and an anti-human trafficking expert who founded the nonprofit, In Our Backyard. Also on the panel were Laurie Bisby of Saving Grace, Paulina Machi of J Bar J Youth Services and Detective Chris Morin of the Bend Police Department. The panelists agreed that luring young people with promises of things the person wants—whether it's drugs, expensive items or otherwise—is a common tactic among human traffickers.
Human Trafficking in Central Oregon
If you thought human trafficking—whether it's commercial sex or forced labor—doesn't exist in Central Oregon, you'd be wrong.
"We've been told by survivors of human trafficking that Central Oregon is a sweet spot for recruiting because of its rural setting and the naivety of citizens to the dangers of human trafficking," Belles wrote in a press release for the event.
Det. Morin said a number of years ago, he, too, was unaware of the extent of the commercial sex trade in Central Oregon, until a friend shared a few anecdotes about it. Needing more proof, Morin says he created a "backpage" ad featuring a girl—and got 45 responses to the ad within 24 hours. A brief search on the Bend listings at backpage.com Tuesday elicited a number of ads, including ones for a "beautiful cougar" and "top quality companionship."
Were those women on backpage.com victims of trafficking? It can be tough to tell—and even the victims of trafficking typically don't self-identify as victims, experts say.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking, in part, as "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation."
"Central Oregon is a sweet spot
for recruiting because of its rural
setting and the naivety of citizens
to the dangers of human trafficking"
Morin said, "They don't refer themselves as being trafficked, or, oh, that was my trafficker, it's not that language and I had to learn that relatively quickly. It's 'my boyfriend.'" Indeed, many "Romeo" pimps lure girls into the life by first making the victim believe the two are developing a romantic relationship. Later, the pimp may ask for "help" to pay rent or get out of other financial straits by convincing the victim to engage in commercial sex.
With that muddy territory, Det. Morin says it can be tough for law enforcement officers to determine who to arrest and who to protect. Often, suspected human trafficking can require extensive investigations.
"It's a slow developing investigation. These aren't easy investigations to work—the provability, they anonymize their numbers, they use a lot of social media apps," Det. Morin said. Knowledge is key; Bend Police are now beginning to engage in more training around how to spot human trafficking and its victims, Det.e Morin says.
Human Trafficking and the EclipseD
uring the August eclipse, Belles advises people to watch out for signs of trafficking, and also recruiting. In a party atmosphere such as the one the eclipse will bring, recruiting could be a big thing, she says.
"I have witnessed firsthand how traffickers drew unsuspecting party-goers into a life of unimaginable control, abuse and trauma—they are manipulators for sheer profit," Belles wrote.
So what to look for during the eclipse? The same clues that someone is being trafficked that one might look for day to day. Commercial sex activity often takes place at or near hotels and motels, Morin said—though the panel was also quick to point out that the eclipse may spread that activity elsewhere, since hotel rooms will be in shorter supply.
Panelist Machi from J Bar J said behaviors such as carrying multiple phones, having anxiety around missed phone calls, a lack of personal documentation, or someone who seems unwilling or unable to speak when another individual is nearby may be signs of trafficking. Also, someone who has no access to a bank account or any personal items may be in a situation of control.
Bisby of Saving Grace also advises people to look out for victims of forced labor, which may manifest as someone who's working at a restaurant or other facility at all hours with little time off, someone who never seems to come out of their home, or someone who avoids eye contact.
Those are all fairly vague activities that could be attributed to other causes, but when in doubt, or when something "just doesn't feel right," call local law enforcement, Det. Morin advises, where officers will sort out an unwarranted call from a legitimate one. "If it's nothing, it's nothing," he said, "but we'll sort that out."
Interested in combatting human trafficking in Central Oregon?
In Our Backyard is hosting several Freedom Sticker Volunteer Days, visiting local businesses to ask them to place the organization's "Freedom Stickers" in the business restrooms.
Path of Freedom Community Outreach Days
Fri., July 28, 1:30-4:30pm
Starts at Hayden Homes, 2464 SW Glacier Pl., Redmond
Sat., July 29, 9am-Noon
Starts at Foundry Church, 60 NW Oregon Ave., Bend
Later events also in Madras.
Email info@InOurBackyard.org or call 541-639-5008 for more information.