Monday, January 16, 2012

A call for change

The Yakima Herald-Republic

Rob McKenna, state attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate, has made human trafficking the primary agenda for his term as president of the National Association of Attorneys General. The organization is considering placing an advertisement decrying the problem during this year's Super Bowl.

Last Wednesday, McKenna collected more than 270,000 signatures on a petition calling for even more law changes that would cement the notion that children involved are victims.

Prostitution is a crime, and police arrest girls for it — even if they are younger than 16, the state's age of consent. The fear of prosecution leaves girls, often trapped by drug addiction and threats, unwilling to report their problems to authorities when they are picked up. McKenna knows of instances in high-profile Seattle cases of teenage girls lying on the witness stand to protect their accused pimps because they were afraid or had been psychologically manipulated.

McKenna agreed state laws should better define the problem.

"I come down on the side recognizing these girls as victims," he said.

However, he is reluctant to completely decriminalize prostitution, even for younger girls, because it would take away a tool for police to intervene and steer the kids toward help.

In the Yakima Valley, juvenile sex trafficking often is tied to gangs, say victim advocates and police.

In a typical scenario, an older gang member convinces a 14-year-old he loves her, introduces her to drugs and asks for sexual favors, first for himself, then for his gang mates as a way to boost his status, recruit new members and make a profit for the gang by pimping her out.

It's going on, but officers have trouble saying how much.

"We definitely know that it's happening," said Sgt. Brenda George of the Yakima Police Department's special assault unit.

Police routinely investigate child sexual-abuse and prostitution complaints, but pinning it to trafficking is a new idea, George said. Many victims end up in juvenile court for drug and violence charges but never say a word about prostitution.

An extra stigma

Few victims of gang crimes report problems for fear of retaliation, while prostitution carries an extra stigma that makes information even harder to come by.

"Because of that, it makes it even more invisible and even more insidious than it already is," said Leslie Briner, associate director of residential services for Seattle agency YouthCare and a child-prostitution consultant.

Mojica fears all this has claimed her daughter.

When she was as young as 11 or 12, Jessica dated heavily tattooed older gang members and sneaked out at night with them to parties as far away as Mattawa, Grant County, Mojica said.

The girl told her mother some of them gave her marijuana and that she often threatened to beat up her younger brother Alexis, now 10, if he told on her.

The single mother lost count of how many times her daughter ran away.

Once, the mother received a menacing phone call in which a male voice said something to the effect of,

"We have your daughter but you'll never see her again if you call the police."

Scared, Mojica complied that time, but has worked with the police over the years. She tried grounding, yelling and even left Jessica overnight in jail one time. She has since attended counseling and parenting classes.

But she blames herself anyway.

"I feel guilty," she said. "I should really have paid more attention to Jessica."

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