U.S. Reps. Reichert, McDermott take testimony in Auburn about the scourge of human sex trafficking

U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, left, and U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle listen and respond to accounts of the latest efforts in Washington State to prevent and address child sex trafficking. - Robert Whale/Auburn Reporter
U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, left, and U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle listen and respond to accounts of the latest efforts in Washington State to prevent and address child sex trafficking.
— image credit: Robert Whale/Auburn Reporter

Mandy Urwiler was only 13 and recently kicked out of her previous school because of her recent running away from home when pimps and drug dealers at her new school began pressuring her.

"On my second day of school," Urwiler recalled, "they asked me to be their whore and make them money ... I didn't want to sell my body. I said no, but they kept pushing."

Urwiler held her ground, and the young men finally, savagely, beat her.

The night of the beating, Urwiler told her divorced parents what had happened. They pulled her from that school.

"I was lucky, because, in this case, it was a situation I could get away from. But not every young person living in foster care or in a group home gets that chance," said Urwiler, today 19 and considering a career in theoretical physics.

Noel Gomez needed 15 years to escape the hellish world of sexual trafficking she'd been coerced into as a foster child and to which those human parasites called pimps staked her with violence. A childhood lost before this young woman could get out from under the rapes and fear of death her pimps threatened her with, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute.

Unhappily, those are typical stories.

Urwiler, today employed by the Mockingbird Society, and Gomez, cofounder and director of survivor services for the Organization for Prostitution Survivors, spoke at a field hearing at Auburn City Hall Wednesday for the U.S. House Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means. U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, and U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle listened to accounts of the latest efforts in Washington State to prevent and address child sex trafficking.

Testifying as well were King County Council member Reagan Dunn, King County Sheriff John Urquhart, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, state senator for the 36th Legislative District of Washington, and Dawn Rains, chief operating officer of Treehouse, a Seattle-based non-profit serving youth in foster care in Washington State.

All speakers came out fiercely, unequivocally for the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Improving Opportunities for Youth in Foster Care Act, which is now under consideration in Congress.

Kohl-Welles said that, despite Washington State's reputation for more than a decade as a national leader in efforts to end human sex trafficking, the problem remains.

"Sex trafficking, as well as all forms of human trafficking, is a pervasive and ever-changing social problem," said Kohl-Welles. "It occurs in a wide variety of forms, from mail-order bride trafficking, including two murders, to false advertisements for au pairs and to the coercion of minors and children being trafficked via the Internet. Unfortunately, though, 33 anti-trafficking bills over 11 years only begin to address this horrifying commodification of human beings.

"...Treating victims of trafficking, especially children and minors, as victims, rather than (as) criminals, has been an important component of the laws we've enacted," Kohl-Welles added. "Children are not prostitutes; they are victims. They are coerced or forced into this practice by criminals and need to be protected and assisted, not jailed."

Urquhart spoke as a seasoned officer of the law.

"Mr. Chair, the legislation discussed today addresses a systemic failure for our children, who have no choice but to depend on the state for their welfare," said Urquhart. "Fifty-nine percent of juveniles arrested in Los Angeles for prostitution are in the foster care system. Sixty-percent of child sex-trafficking victims were in foster care or group homes when they ran away. These statistics are simply astounding. They surprised me, but I'm not so sure the numbers surprised everyone in this room.

"... There is nothing voluntary about a child who has engaged in survival sex," Urquhart added. "There is nothing voluntary about a woman whose pimp coerces and pressures her into engaging in sex for money, just to have that same pimp keep the proceeds. And there is absolutely nothing voluntary about any adult paying any child for sex."

"Washington State has been recognized as a leader for our efforts to fight human trafficking," said Dunn. "But we cannot rest on our laurels. Human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of our children are still occurring in our community.

Dunn said he appreciated the opportunity to "highlight and to develop additional tools to combat the vile crime of human trafficking. Only by using every means available to us will we be able to save future victims from these horrors," Dunn said.

Reichert, a former King County Sheriff, described how in his 32 years in law enforcement he had "seen first hand the tragedies kids face when they're not cared for by loving parents, when they run away, and when they end up on the streets."

Reichert's experience, of course, includes his start-to-finish involvement with the Green River serial killer case, which saw dozens of young women, including many who were then or had been in foster care, murdered. That list included Gary Ridgway's first-known victim, Wendy Coffield.

"We need to do more to protect kids like Wendy Coffield, and that's why we're all here today," Reichert said.

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