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
"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 YakimaValley, 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, GrantCounty, 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,
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
But she blames herself anyway.
"I feel guilty," she said. "I should really
have paid more attention to Jessica."