A newly formed regional task force is aiming to create a uniform way of identifying and responding to human trafficking in the Gorge.

The Mid-Columbia Human Trafficking Task Force represents a variety of professionals who are “coming together with the understanding that trafficking is happening in our community and a goal of increasing our knowledge and our ability to identify and respond to it,” said Jennifer Pauletto, direct service program manager at Haven from Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault.

Human trafficking is the umbrella term which covers both labor trafficking and sex trafficking.

Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill said when he heard Jenna Cohan, a Haven staffer, propose starting the task force, “That kind of perked my ears up. Human trafficking has been on the forefront of a bunch of investigations.”

Federal law defines sex trafficking as recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing or obtaining a person for a commercial sex act, in which money changes hands, or for involuntary servitude or slavery.

He said, “We don’t know how big it is here, but we’re pretty sure some things are happening here. If you think about us geographically, we’ve got two major highways,” Interstate 84 and Highway 97.

He said, “We’ve got cases that we’re working right now that are across the United States that potentially have to do with human trafficking.”

He was open to the idea of a task force “because I think it’s an important topic we need to discuss.”

“It’s a big deal and it’s not going to go away. People are beginning to put resources into it dollar-wise to address the issue,” he said.

He said the multi-county, multi-disciplinary group is pretty diverse, including law enforcement, district attorneys, victim advocates, representatives from the state Department of Human Services and youth advocates.

The goals of the task force from the law enforcement perspective are to create public awareness, help with investigations, and help with prosecutions, Magill said.

Training for law enforcement would center on investigations, processes and evidence.

“There’s not as much public awareness out there as I thought there was,” Magill said. People have heard of it, he said, but don’t necessarily know what it is.

Trafficking has long been a topic in the world of domestic and sexual violence awareness, but it has jumped to the forefront of public awareness in recent years.

A national hotline, Polaris, tracks where calls about trafficking come from, and 135 cases of trafficking were reported in Oregon in 2018.

There are a number of parameters that help determine where trafficking takes place, said Tara Koch, executive director of Haven. They include areas with internet access, vulnerable populations, and people with disposable income. Another factor is proximity to hotels and major roads, such as Interstate 84 or Highway 97.  People tend to think trafficking is an urban problem, but it happens in rural areas too.

“We know trafficking is up not only here but everywhere in the world,” Pauletto said, and it looks different everywhere, too.

Magill said as the matter was discussed, he realized, “I probably had cases that were human trafficking cases.”

One case in particular was a domestic violence call at about 1 a.m. on Christmas morning in Maupin. By the time Magill arrived, the suspect had fled.

By 3 or 4 a.m. on Christmas Day Magill got a call from a federal parole officer out of Seattle who was very interested in the suspect and in the victim, asking questions like what her connection was, if any, to the community, and whether she had other siblings.

It turned out that the suspect was directly tied to the Baltic states on human trafficking. If the victim had ever been taken to Seattle, “she never would’ve made it home because she would’ve been shipped overseas to the Baltic states.”

Another deputy stopped a man on a traffic stop, and there were two teenage girls in the back seat. “Is that human trafficking?” Magill asked. “There’s more awareness about it.”

Magill said people think sex trafficking only happens if someone is taken across international borders. That’s not the case. Someone could be taken from one end of The Dalles to another to be trafficked, for example, he said.

Prostitution is also a form of trafficking, he said.

And that’s the kind of shift in thinking that has occurred around the idea of what human trafficking is, said Pauletto.

“We’re looking at it in different ways as a society now,” she said. For instance, people used to speak of child prostitutes. Now it’s understood they are trafficked victims of crime.

One of the first steps in training for involved agencies will be breaking down misconceptions around what human trafficking is.

For example, people used to expect survivors of violence to be crying or upset, or to fit into a certain pattern of behavior.

Similar misconceptions will have to be torn down around trafficking.

Cohan, the bi-lingual sexual violence program coordinator at Haven, said, “The first step for a lot of professionals will be to get adequate training on what people are going to present with,” what red flags to look for, and where professionals are seeing that in their work.

Shannon-Marie O’Brien, the task force coordinator, is researching best practices for identifying and responding to trafficking victims.

One step is how to assess whether someone is a victim of trafficking, and even how to frame that question, O’Brien said. Survivors of trafficking can help understand how to pose the question.

Once professionals know how to recognize the red flags, and how to ask the question of whether someone is trafficked, the second part is knowing how to respond.

A trafficked person will need the resources of a number of agencies. No one entity can meet all their needs, Pauletto said. “That person is going to come in contact with so many agencies.” And that is a big challenge, to understand what services relevant agencies provide and to get someone connected to those services.

“Everybody has more to learn, and we want to learn. And that’s why this group exists,” Cohan said. She wants to create an environment where survivors feel comfortable talking about what they really needed when they first seek help, and the changes they want to see happen in how agencies respond to human trafficking victims.

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