My first introduction to the world of child sex trafficking came well before I was a detective working crimes against children. My wife was six months pregnant with our first child, and I was given the opportunity to work with Agape International Missions (www.aimfree.org) in a short-term missions capacity, in Cambodia. Inside the capitol city of Phnom Penh was the small neighborhood called Svay Pak, which has been historically renowned as a destination for child sex trafficking. In and around Phnom Penh I saw adult foreign men (largely from Australia and North America) walking around, holding hands with Cambodian children. I remember seeing open air cafes whose patrons were white men in their 60’s sipping iced coffee w/ condensed milk, much like you might on vacation — only their companions were pre-pubescent Khmer boys or girls, sitting in open captivity. The most graphic thing I witnessed was a child being unabashedly raped by an older man, on a second-story balcony overlooking the Russian Market. This awoke in me a burning anger and desire for justice.
Fast forward seven years. I now work as a police detective, where the majority of the cases I work are sex crimes against children. Some of these cases are trafficking cases, while others are child pornography cases, or familial sex abuse cases (among others). I work on a team with five other detectives, part of the Special Investigation Unit (SIU). As a team, we only work major felony crimes, and again the majority of those cases involve children (due to the severity of the crimes, and the intricacies of dealing with children as victims). To give you perspective of the magnitude of ongoing evil in a city of around 35,000 people, each of us have between twenty-two and thirty-five active cases, and get assigned new cases weekly (if not daily). We work closely with Child Advocacy Centers (CACs), where kids can be assessed by certified forensic interviewers, who specialize in interviewing children.
The biggest adjustment to my line of work was not learning how to speak “lawyer,” write search warrants, or the complexity of getting a confession from a child rapist; Rather, my biggest challenge has been living in two different worlds: the world at work, and the world everywhere else. I can’t tell you how many times people have been surprised to hear the city I work in has a real problem with child sex crimes. A small piece of my soul dies a little when a well-meaning person asks what the most “shocking” thing I’ve seen is as a police officer. To this day I don’t know how to answer their questions, as I refuse to traumatize them with the things that have traumatized me and caused me countless sleepless nights. I’ve been turned down by a half dozen counselors and therapists who, when they learn the type of things I need to talk about with them, recommend I find someone who specializes in law enforcement counseling.
There is a huge disconnect between the average person’s everyday life, and the world that operates in the shadows. Just because you don’t see the atrocities that occur, and the lives lost to evil every day, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening in your own neighborhood/city. This brings me to the first point I want to make about sex trafficking: It is real and happening right now, whether you know about it or not.
Before getting assigned to the SIU, I worked as a patrol officer. In many ways I miss the work I did on patrol, and some days wish I was back in a uniform and driving a marked vehicle, rather than plainclothes driving an undercover car. It was simpler, and I slept much better back then. I remember one of the first times I came face to face with a trafficker on patrol, and it was nothing like what I thought it would be. One of my fellow officers (a K9 officer who worked primarily drug cases) and I were meeting with a female informant around 1:30 in the morning, in the back parking lot of a Mormon church in town. Mary (not her real name) was giving us intel about her dealers, and started talking about a man she worked for from the Mexican cartel. Mary told us George (not his real name) had used her to mule drugs into Oregon, and she gave us decent actionable information regarding some mid-level dealers in the county. Then Mary started describing to us how George told her that he would pay her $50 for every girl she brought him to Portland. Mary said that freaked her out, but George had threatened to cut off her head in the past when she didn’t do what he wanted. Mary wouldn’t tell us how many girls she had taken to George, but it was clear she had taken some.
My next interaction with a trafficker came in the form of someone I had dealt with multiple times on patrol. He was one of those “constitutionalists,” who liked to go toe-to-toe with law enforcement and tell us we didn’t have the right to do most of the things we do in our job. I was admittedly surprised when we received a call from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), who told us Tony (not his real name) had been paid, via Venmo, to transport females from our city to Portland. We contacted Tony on behalf of DHS, and he ended up rolling on his “employers,” who DHS contacted and arrested. Tony is still around town and will most likely not face repercussions for his involvement (due to his cooperation with the federal investigation). This brings me to my second point: Traffickers come in all shapes, sizes, and walks of life.
I remember the moment I realized my own naivete regarding child sex trafficking, even after working as a police officer for years. I was speaking with a young woman who was homeless, whom I had dealt with dozens of times. That day, she had been the victim of rape, and the more she described the events surrounding her sexual assault, the more I realized she was describing being sex trafficked. Due to my own judgments and pre-conceived notions, I had overlooked the homeless community as prime candidates for victimization of trafficking. I think there was still a small part of me that believed all victims of trafficking were kidnapped/abducted and put on a cargo ship to be ushered to another country. The reality I have learned is that people can be trafficked in their own towns, cities, and counties.
Another female I dealt with disclosed she had been trading sex for drugs. She was a meth addict, and found she could get drugs from lots of different guys if she gave them her body. This turned into her being held in a house and gang-raped, before being released after a few days. This young woman was homeless, a drug addict, and she continued using her body to get drugs, even after this incident. She was stuck in a horrible cycle, because she didn’t yet know there was any other life for her. This brings me to my third point: It does not matter what someone has done to put themselves in a vulnerable position. No one deserves to be sexually abused/trafficked.
In my line of work, it’s easy to fall into the disparaging belief that things will never get better. I know that, according to a 2016 study conducted by Loyola University and Covenant House, one in five youths who are provided shelter by Covenant House have experienced some form of sex trafficking. I know that between July of 2017 and June of 2018, the Department of Justice served 8,913 clients who received grant money as survivors of human trafficking. I know for every child rapist/ pornographer/ trafficker I arrest, there are more who haven’t yet been discovered. When I get discouraged, I think back to Cambodia.
My last day in-country, I got to visit a secret compound where rescued victims of sex trafficking were kept. There were nurses, teachers, and therapists on-site who helped these children try and regain some sense of their childhood, and help facilitate the healing process, however they could. There were many children there, so many, and I was shocked to see the young age of some of them, the youngest of which ranged in ages of three to five. It was one of those extremely young girls, Sri Ni, that made a lasting impression on me. When I first arrived (a 6’4” white man who probably looked more like her abuser than someone she could trust) she would not even look at me. During craft time, I helped Sri Ni glue paper together to make a princess outfit, complete with a crown. Sri Ni never looked at me, and wouldn’t speak to me, but we developed a system of me handing her the Elmer’s glue tube, waiting for her to be done, then taking it back when she offered it. We worked together in silence to make her a princess outfit, and then the whole group had a dance party.
At the end of my time at the compound, I said goodbye to the staff and survivors, and started walking toward the gates. I felt a tug at my shirt, and turned to see Sri Ni standing near me. She hugged my leg tightly, smiled at me, then ran off to rejoin the other kids. What struck me, and will stay with me forever, is the incredible healing power of God. This little girl had no reason to trust me, especially as a foreign man she had only met that morning. This little girl had experienced trauma 95% of people will never know, but God is still bigger, and more powerful, then the evil in this world.
God’s ultimate power doesn’t excuse us from being active and vigilant. I Peter 5:8 says, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” If you’re reading this post, you have already taken the first step in educating yourself into the truth of the world around you. You may not take the same route as me and pick up a career in law enforcement to combat the atrocities around us, but there are countless ways for you to get involved. Pray. Continue educating yourself on website like endhomelessness.org, or polarisproject.org. Learn to recognize signs of trafficking, and do not be silent if you observe or encounter trafficking.