A recent report card issued by an international sex trafficking prevention nonprofit showed that, as a whole, Washington state has a lot of room to improve its response to child sex trafficking.
In an effort to improve local response to child sex trafficking, representatives from multiple Lewis County agencies recently attended multi-disciplinary training in Tennessee, developed a community action plan and brought the plan back to Lewis County for implementation.
Samantha Mitchell, a child forensic interviewer with the Youth Advocacy Center of Lewis County who attended the training, presented the team’s community action plan to the Lewis County Board of Commissioners during its business meeting on Tuesday.
“We have a small community and we might not get it all right all the time, but we really do have good people working for the betterment of our community,” Mitchell said to the board.
The Youth Advocacy Center, which provides child forensic interviewing services to Lewis County, identified 25 youth who had “characteristics of exploitation” between 2019 and 2022, according to Mitchell.
But given that child sexual exploitation is a crime that is not often disclosed by victims, there’s a significant chance there were more victims in that time frame who were not identified.
“This is a unique crime in that a lot of the regular child sexual abuse cases that we have are based on disclosures,” Mitchell said, referencing instances where the victims or someone close to them disclose the crime to law enforcement. “Child sex trafficking is not a disclosure crime. It's an identified and discovered crime, which means we have to approach it differently when we're responding to it.”
Instead of relying on someone to report the crime, law enforcement and their partners must be able to recognize red flags associated with a child sex trafficking crime, Mitchell said.
Identification of victims, response to victims, prevention and training were specific problem areas cited by sex trafficking prevention nonprofit Shared Hope International in its 2022 report card for Washington state as a whole.
Washington state earned a D grade for 2022, according to the report, which can be read at https://reportcards.sharedhope.org/year2022/washington/.
The Lewis County team, which is made up of representatives from the Youth Advocacy Center of Lewis County, the Centralia Police Department, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, Lewis County Juvenile Court, the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office, Child Protective Services and Providence’s Abuse Intervention Center, used that report as a guideline for what issues need to be addressed on a local level.
The team’s overall goal is to establish a better local trauma-informed and victim-centered response to child sex trafficking in Lewis County, per the team’s mission statement.
In the community action plan, the team proposed splitting local response to child sex trafficking into two distinct sides: one to handle direct investigation and one to handle community support, prevention and advocacy programs.
“The investigative side is very different than the community response side,” Mitchell said.
All agencies that attended the Tennessee training would be involved in the investigative subgroup, dubbed the investigation multi-disciplinary team. That team would be responsible for meeting within 24 hours after a new case of child sex trafficking in Lewis County is identified to establish a response plan.
“There's a vast difference between a child who discloses and a child who is discovered, and a child who is discovered is a completely different modicum of care,” said Lisa Wall, a family nurse practitioner with Providence’s Abuse Intervention Center, during the commission meeting on Tuesday.
The community action plan proposes additional training for personnel across all the agencies on the team to help staff identify red flags and risk factors associated with child sex trafficking.
One of the largest risk factors within Lewis County and elsewhere, Mitchell said, is youth running away from home.
“The average age of a child who's being trafficked is 13 to 14. That's the same age as children who are running away,” Mitchell said, adding a majority of runaway youth have a history of abuse in the home. “Once kids are on the street, nothing is for free. They have to earn things that they need to survive. And within 48 hours, one out of three youth will be solicited after running away to trafficking.”
On the community resource response side, the community action plan proposes connecting child sex trafficking victims to resources including specially-trained advocates, crisis housing in temporary host homes and mental health/substance abuse disorder treatment as needed.
Members of the team are currently working with the Centralia and Chehalis school districts to establish safety plans for at-risk youth and to develop a plan for educating students on child sex trafficking.
Additionally, the plan proposes setting up donation drop boxes around the community that youth could access for basic supplies and embarking on a community education campaign.
That education campaign will formally begin with a free public event scheduled for 3-5 p.m. on April 24 in the TransAlta Commons at Centralia College.
“I'm going to write letters to each individual industry inviting them to this and outlining why it's important that they show up and what they can do in relation to this topic,” said Mitchell, advising the county commission should expect a letter from her in the coming weeks.
As an example, Mitchell said she’s writing to local tattoo parlors since they could play a part in covering up brandings and other markings traffickers put on their victims.
Commissioners Scott Brummer, Lindsey Pollock and Sean Swope each expressed their support for the work of Mitchell and the rest of the team in Lewis County.
“You and your team are doing great work,” Brummer said. “We’re going to move forward. You have our support.”