Photo by Jerry Gay
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36) has been responsible for introducing some of the first legislation in the nation on human trafficking. This year, she plans to do more.

Putting a stop to human trafficking

Human trafficking can happen to anyone, in any form, at any place.

Even Ballard.

No, The Ballard News-Tribune hasn’t uncovered a Ballard-based human trafficking circuit. But it doesn’t mean the crime isn’t happening.

Seattle is a hotbed for human trafficking. Rani Hong, a U.N. gift adviser and former victim herself, calls Seattle the third worst spot for it. The data is actually pretty fuzzy on actual rankings due to the secrecy of the crimes and general quietness and perhaps ignorance of victims, but Washington State’s number of entry points -- I-5, a border with Canada, several ports, an international airport and large rural areas -- makes Seattle a natural intersection for the crime.

It’s why Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36) has been one of the most adamant and outspoken legislators on the subject. With history as a sociology professor at the University of Washington and earlier as an instructor on courses about children and sex in California, Kohl-Welles has been responsible for helping introduce the first anti-human trafficking bills in the nation back in 2002.

One of those bills setup a taskforce to delve deeper into the issue of human trafficking in Washington, and it has since led into other bills and reports. So far, Kohl-Welles herself has introduced 10 bills shaping a much-needed policy on trafficking. Other legislators, working in conjunction with Kohl-Welles, have introduced many more.

Referring to the 2013 Legislative Session, Kohl-Welles said, “What I hope to get out of this session is to make progress.” And indeed, she is trying to push through four more bills and a resolution to pressure Congress to work on the subject. They are as follows:

• SB 5223 - Revises the definition of "abuse or neglect" by including victimizing children by involving them in trafficking, for purposes of chapter 26.44 RCW (abuse of children).
• SB 5308 - Establishes the commercially sexually exploited children statewide coordinating committee to address the issue of children who are commercially sexually exploited.
• SB 5488 - Requires an additional fee of five thousand dollars per offense to be assessed on a person convicted of commercial sexual abuse of a minor, promoting commercial sexual abuse of a minor, or promoting travel for commercial sexual abuse of a minor, when the court finds that an internet advertisement in which the victim of the crime was described or depicted was instrumental in facilitating the commission of the crime.
• SJM 8003 - Requests Congress to amend the Communications Decency Act.
• Unnamed Bill - To incorporate education on human trafficking awareness into training for teachers and other school personnel.

The bill to keep an eye on is SB 5488, a reincarnation of a bill introduced last year, which was struck down by a Federal judge in December. The bill is targeted at online prostitution commercialization, and more specifically at websites like Backpage.com, which became a center of Seattle debate after several child sex trafficking were linked directly to ads from the site. Backpage.com is owned by Seattle Weekly’s now former parent company, Village Voice Media.

Between 2010 and 2012, the Seattle Police Department recovered 22 children exploited for sex -- all were linked directly to Backpage.com. No other known cases were linked to any other sites, including Craigslist, The Stranger, and other adult sites. In addition, a 2008 Human Services report said that the number of exploited children that year could have been as high as 300-500.

“It’s just heartbreaking. You just see more and more children being sold online and we just got to get a handle on that,” Kohl-Welles said.

However, despite its good intentions, Kohl-Welles’ 2012 bill was struck down as a result of the Communications Decency Act, which provides near complete immunity to an Internet service provider for any liability they might have for any advertisements on their website. The Act was created in 1996, nearly 17 years ago, and hardly addresses the issues the Internet presents today, Kohl-Welles said.

The defense used also inspired Kohl-Welles to introduce Senate Joint Memorial 8003, which would have the Washington State Legislature request President Barack Obama and Congress to amend the Communications Decency Act.

An excerpt detailing the ultimate demand reads as following:

“Your Memorialists respectfully pray that Congress update and amend the Communications Decency Act to reflect the current scope and power of the internet, to acknowledge the publisher-like role of companies like Backpage.com who profit from the sale and distribution of advertisements on the internet, and to authorize states to enact and enforce laws holding internet service providers responsible when they knowingly facilitate child sex trafficking through the sale of adult escort advertisements.”

To learn more about human trafficking, the Ballard News-Tribune went to an educational event on the subject at the home of Pacific Institute Founder Diane Tice’s home. The keynote speaker, the aforementioned Hong, told of her own victimization back in India, as well as what she has been doing to try and overcome human trafficking.

Indeed, the realities are as harsh and brutal as you can imagine, but perhaps most striking was the fact that it can really take any form.

“When we think about human trafficking we think about a specific industry and a specific purpose,” said Ceitci Demirkova, who has worked on the problem in Bulgaria. But in fact, she said, the definition of human trafficking is broad and can encompass any person under a variety of circumstances, including restaurant work, agriculture, landscaping, prostitution -- even organ harvesting.

It’s why awareness of the issue is key, speakers said. It is everyone’s job to be keep their eyes and ears open, and to be a voice for those who have none.

“When we know the truth and we know what’s happening around us, we could be the swing person in a case of human trafficking,” Demirkova said.

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