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Tri-Cities advocates fighting human trafficking work to slow crime during busiest summer weekend

 A woman in a maroon shirt holds white papers and white twisty ties. She is standing partially in a turquoise porta potty. A Red, white and blue flyer is hanging on the inside of the porta potty door. Her hand is taping the left side of the flyer to the door with a blue piece of tape. Behind her, there are two other porta potty doors. A man is walking into the third door. He is wearing a light green T-shirt and khaki shorts.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
JoDee Garretson, executive director of the Support, Advocacy and Resource Center, tapes up a flyer for people to tear off tabs with SARC's phone number on them. The agency helps survivors of sexual abuse and human trafficking.

As the Tri-Cities gears up for boat races – one of the biggest events of the year – local human trafficking advocates are gearing up to help. This is the first year that local resource centers are trying a new tactic.

It’s the morning before hydroplanes fill the Columbia River and fans crowd the shore to cheer on their favorite racers in the 2023 Water Follies Columbia Cup.

A hydroplane races on the Columbia River, as seen from the Kennewick shore.
Tracci Dial
Northwest Public Broadcasting
A hydroplane races on the Columbia River, as seen from the Kennewick shore.

“One of the biggest weekends of the summer,” said Kyle Edberg who was volunteering to tape up signs in Pasco.

For now, all is quiet on the Pasco side of the riveras Edberg and two volunteers walk through dewy grass.

“It’s kind of cool right now. I feel the anticipation of excitement,” said JoDee Garretson, the executive director for the Support, Advocacy and Resource Center, known as SARC, in the Tri-Cities. The agency helps survivors of sexual abuse and human trafficking.

 A woman in a maroon shirt and black shorts walks on green grass toward a row of four blue porta potties. There are five rows of porta potties in the distance
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
Volunteers placed informational tear-off flyers inside porta potties to be used during boat race weekend.

They planned to pepper the 118 porta potties on the Pasco side with flyers they hoped could help victims of human trafficking. The Columbia Center Rotary tackled porta potties across the river in Kennewick.

This was the first year at boat races flyers with tear-off tabs have been posted. The flyers include SARC’s 24-hour hotline number: 509- 374-5391.

“We didn't actually use the word trafficking or ask the people if they’re being trafficked. That's not often how someone would identify themselves or really necessarily even think of their situation,” Garretson said.

 A woman in a maroon shirt posts a white sign on a chain-link fence. In the background, there is green grass, a white picnic tent and a blue river.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
JoDee Garretson posts a sign warning potential buyers to not participate in trafficking.

They also pasted signs on chain-link fences to warn potential buyers to “make the right decision,” as Garrettson said, “just go home.” Boat race weekend, like any large sporting event, including All Star Week in Seattle, is associated with a large influx of human trafficking.

“There's so many people coming from out of town, there's more influx of money. And so there's sex trafficking increases,” Garretson said.

A lot of the trafficking takes place at area hotels, advocates said. Mirror Ministries, another advocacy group, passed out flyers featuring missing kids to hotel front desks.

“Anytime you have large gatherings, a lot of partying, there's going to be more demand,” said Tricia MacFarlan, the executive director of Mirror Ministries.

Julia Hull used to work at higher-end hotel front desks in Kennewick and Richland. People don’t think trafficking happens there but they’d be wrong, she said. She said she’s made welfare calls on kids that helped them out of trafficking situations.

“Basically just people being sneaky, right? So any way that you can get into the facility without people seeing you, side entrances, if they have balconies,” Hull said. “People get very creative.”

The problem is larger than many people know, advocates said. MacFarlan said it’s most often happening right under people’s noses.

“We're seeing kids that are being sexually trafficked, but they're still living at home,” she said. “They're still going to school, they might be going to your church youth group. But there's horrible things happening to them.”

There are so-called “Romeo traffickers,” often men who start out as boyfriends and slowly add pressure for young teens until they feel like they are stuck, MacFarlan said. Gangs can traffick people – but most often, she said, moms are the first traffickers.

“That's just heart wrenching,” she said.

Numbers for human trafficking are hard to come by, she says. Oregon and Washington rank among high-trafficking states. In 2013, a survey estimated 200 girls were prostituted every night in the Tri-Cities. At first, she thought that sounded nuts. Then, a sting in the Tri-Cities resulted in 26 men arrested over five days – a youth pastor, a scientist, businessmen among them.

“You see that kind of demand, where you have a couple of ads placed. And you get thousands of responses from hundreds of people coming in,” MacFarlan said. “That was one site with two ads. And we know of dozens and dozens of sites, including different apps.”

Another spot frequented by buyers and traffickers is the local mall, said former state Sen. Sharon Brown. During her time in office, Brown helped attain state resources for awareness training and what to do if you see something happening.

Several advocates wanted to show Brown how the problem is so often in plain sight but still goes unnoticed. While they walked around the mall, Brown said, they saw a young girl who appeared to be under the influence, held up and walked around by a man.

“Oh my gosh, she was being trafficked right in front of us,” Brown said, with tears in her eyes. “I'm a mom of two daughters and it was horrifying.”

Brown said some buyers sit on laptops at the mall, placing their orders. While she said she wanted to jump in and help, the advocates told her that could endanger the young woman. That’s when Brown said she knew she had to get the state legislature to help.

Advocates said now that they know what to look for and they often see these sorts of situations. People at higher risk are often in their younger teens or early 20s. They can have lower incomes, be houseless, be a part of the LGBTQ+ community – especially in areas where people don’t feel accepted, are from a minority community, have disabilities or low self esteem, Garretson said.

Signs to look for include carrying multiple cell phones, suddenly having a lot of cash on-hand, drastic changes in clothing or appearance, not being able to explain where they are going and appearing to have a different sense of fear or appearing extremely uncomfortable, getting tattoos with dollar signs or the word “daddy,” she said.

People might also reach out through common phrases – used in different contexts, Garretson said, with words like ‘work’ and ‘dates.’

Years ago, Garretson said, one girl called over and over.

“She said she would feel guilty about having to go to work. I didn't understand that,” Garretson said. “She was talking about feeling bad about it but she had to make money for her family. Later, as I thought about a lot of the things she said, I know she was reaching out for help.”

Garretson recently went to the Lind Demolition Derby about halfway between the Tri-Cities and Spokane. She said she noticed a young girl who really worried her. She followed her around to see if she was ever alone – but she never was. Often Garretson said she will hand girls her business card or items like chapstick with SARC’s phone number on the label.

“I might offend them. I don't know. But I would rather make that mistake than at least not reach out,” she said.

Advocates said the Tri-Cities can also act as a thoroughfare.

“It’s right off I-90. We're not far from Seattle. We're close to Oregon, so being able to cross state lines. And then of course, Canada is not too far,” Garretson said.

But groups like SARC and Mirror Ministries are trying to help.

“Ideally, we'd work ourselves out of business,” MacFarlan said.

For 12 years, Mirror Ministries researched and pushed to build a residency home for young girls who have made it out of sex trafficking circles.

“We kept seeing the same kids popping back up again and again,” she said.

She said they figured kids were getting rescued but not finding the help they needed.

A white home with a long porch. The porch has grey wooden pilars. There are windows along the front porch. There is green grass and purple flowers and green bushes in front of the porch.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
Esther's Home, in rural Pasco, will house five girls to help them recover from being trafficked.

That’s why Mirror Ministries built Esther’s Home in rural Pasco from a completely renovated home. Once it opens, it will be the first residency home of its type in Washington.

It has rooms for five girls. MacFarlan said the girls will likely stay for a couple years – they’ll attend counseling sessions and school.

“The rooms are locked. So this is her own safe quiet place,” she said.

The girls can pick out their own bedding and, paint a wall any color they want. There will be a library, sensory area with fidget spinners and plush recliners, a meditation garden, and therapy horses. Girls can virtually attend their own school districts, whether they're from King County or North Dakota.

“It’s a way to calm the soul in the spirit and literally the physical being,” she said.

Previously, young girls were sent to other residency homes around the country. In the past two weeks, MacFarland said they’ve transported two girls to programs in other states.

“There are programs out there. There's just not enough of them,” she said.

MacFarlan said she hopes Esther’s Home provides the girls with a renewed sense of consent, choice and control.

“We want to be able to give the girls those things that have been stolen from them,” she said. “Bring back autonomy for her so that she can grow into the person that she is meant to be.”

Mirror Ministries purchased land that has the space to eventually build a second and third home, she said.

“With hope anything is possible,” she said. “Healing is possible. That freedom is possible. We see people come out on the other end that are coming out so much stronger.”

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.