Human trafficking is a problem. It's a problem I know about, I read about, that I realize the enormity of. It is a problem that I hate, that I want to fight, that makes me sick to my stomach. It's happening all over the world and without a doubt it is happening in my neighborhood.
According to national estimates, one of three missing teens who ends up on the streets will be lured or forced into prostitution within 48 hours. The number of U.S. youth at-risk of being sexually exploited is 244,000. The average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14. Every year upwards of 17,000 foreign nationals are trafficked into the U.S. These are just a few of the national statistics, which pale in comparison to global statistics.
We can look at the problem even closer to home. Portland's proximity to 2 major interstates as well as river accessibility, lax sexual trafficking enforcement laws, a legal sex industry, a large population of street kids and Oregon's dependence on seasonal farmworkers make Portland a highly attractive place for traffickers to be.
I know the statistics. I know the signs. I've had dinner with prostituted women, regularly. I've listened to speakers on the topic. I've kept up-to-date on conferences focusing on the issue. So why is it that I don't know what to do when faced with the problem 2 feet in front of my face? I knew the woman telling her story to me and my children this evening and asking for money was not standing there soliciting money by any thought or choice of her own.
Sure, she wasn't selling sex, she wasn't a farm worker being labored as a slave, she wasn't fulfilling the role that we hear about when we hear the words human trafficking. But she was clearly under the watch, under the control of someone other than herself. She was soliciting money for another. She was in a place of need, possibly even danger. She said she was 17, but possibly younger. She was pretty. We walked away from her. In a moment of realization, I froze. I stared at her, only half hearing her story, my eyes darting around assessing the people near to us. I said nothing. I contributed funds to the lie she was feeding, I suppose subconsciously to protect my children and to save myself from the questioning that might ensue. I avoided an opportunity to teach my children. And I walked away.
Foreign trafficking is finding it's way into the headlines and into the consciousness of people around the globe. The problem is beginning to be recognized, to be battled. But what about the severity of the problems we are facing here in our own community? Of the need to understand how to recognize trafficking when it blends into the everyday. When it creeps up unexpectedly in the most mundane of places. When your children are witness to the lies being told. How do we not freeze in the face of need? How do we respond?