Taking on the traffickers.
Hundreds of thousands of American youths are trafficked for sexual exploitation every year, according to the U.S. Justice Department. On Monday, authorities rescued 105 of them and arrested 150 pimps and other abusers in a three-day law enforcement sweep in 76 cities.
The crackdown is welcome news, and the extrication of these vulnerable youths, including at least two in Oregon, offers hope they will not spend their lives as victims of sexual exploitation and degradation. Yet much remains to be done.
Federal lawmakers can take the next critical step by approving legislation co-sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio. Their bill would require state law enforcement agencies and foster care and child welfare programs to identify children lured into sex trafficking as victims of abuse and neglect who are eligible for essential protections and services.
The Justice Department estimates that 450,000 children in the United States run away from home every year, and a third will end up living on the streets. Many of those on the streets will be forced into prostitution within hours after leaving home
The children rescued in recent days were from 76 cities. The largest numbers were from San Francisco, Detroit, Milwaukee, Denver and New Orleans. But officials familiar with child sex trafficking say the problem is every bit as serious in the Northwest as elsewhere in the country. They describe trafficking rings that operate along the Interstate 5 corridor and ensnare runaways from cities such as Seattle, Portland and Eugene, where large populations of homeless youths draw pimps and others eager to exploit children.
As Greg Fowler, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon, noted Monday, "Children - some barely into middle school - are finding themselves forced to sell their bodies on the streets, our streets, every day." That's happening here, not just in cities like New York or Los Angeles. Here in Oregon. Here in Eugene.
Wyden has turned the issue of trafficking of youths into a personal crusade in recent years. Congress should waste no time in passing his latest bill, which has bipartisan support and would ensure that children lured into trafficking are uniformly identified as victims.
"In much of the country today if a girl is found in the custody of a so-called pimp she is not considered to be a victim of abuse, and that's just wrong and defies common sense," Wyden testified at a recent hearing.
The Oregon Legislature did its part this year by finally joining at least 40 other states with laws on their books making it a felony to pay for sex with a minor. The bill also significantly toughened sentences for pimps. Earlier in the session, state lawmakers approved another bill, signed into law by the governor, that allows district attorneys to prosecute pimps who even attempt to force a child into prostitution.
Such progress in the fight against child sex trafficking is encouraging. But it will require a more concerted effort to make a meaningful reduction in one of civilization's most loathsome crimes.