Complex convictions

Katherine Green, left, Patty Perlow, center, and Sara Jensen, right, in the Lane County Courthouse. Green is the Lane County Senior Prosecutor. Perlow is the Lane County District Attorney. Jensen is the Victim Advocate. [Dana Sparks/The Register-Guard]

The often-long journey to prosecute traffickers faces multiple road blocks

The number of convicted sex traffickers in Lane County in the past three years isn't large, but it demonstrates the path to a successful prosecution is complex, facing multiple roadblocks and detours.

While there are many different situations and ways it can occur, sex trafficking is basically defined by the U.S. State Department as when a person engages in a commercial sex act by force, threats of force, fraud, coercion or any combination.

It can be subtle and hard to recognize, disguised as something as commonplace as a couple dating, to outsiders and even to the victim. That also makes its prevalence hard to track.

The National Human Trafficking website reported 135 human trafficking cases in Oregon in 2018 — 101 of those involved sex trafficking. While the numbers are low, there are many factors, such as fear and self-identification, that can deter victims from coming forward and a process, such as contacting law enforcement and seeking help, that must happen before a case is prosecuted.

Victims and survivors may not realize what is being done to them or what happened to them. And once they have self-identified as a victim, the emotional, physical and psychological trauma can make moving on a struggle. It can lead them to be fearful to seek help, unable to find the limited resources available or hesitant to go through the system to prosecute the people responsible.

Tamara LeRoy in her office at Sexual Assault Support Services (SASS). LeRoy is the SASS Trafficking Intervention Coordinator. [Dana Sparks/The Register-Guard]

Survivors struggle to self-identify

It took almost 12 years for Eugene sex trafficking survivor Lindsey Cooper to realize what had happened to her. She, like most trafficking survivors, did not identify herself as a victim. It was only after listening to a friend at a church retreat who also survived a trafficking situation that she realized what she went through.

“She was describing what had happened to her, some of the things that were said to her, and I just said to myself, 'That's what happened to me,'” Cooper said. “All of a sudden I heard somebody saying it.”

Cooper never sought help from police or services. In her mind, she was ashamed of what happened and by the time she realized what had happened, she was married, a mother of two and had a good support system.

Only a survivor can identify themselves as a survivor. It is not someone else's responsibility or place to do that for them, said Tamara LeRoy, the lead coordinator of Lane County Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Multidisciplinary Team, or CSEC MDT, and trafficking intervention coordinator for Sexual Assault Support Services, or SASS.

It’s extremely common for survivors of past situations and current victims to struggle to or identify themselves as sex trafficking victims, LeRoy said.

This struggle comes at a cost. Identifying and accepting what happened is often a survivor’s first step in healing from the trauma they’ve experienced, which can make prosecuting sex trafficking cases more difficult.

“In general, people don't self-identify as being trafficked unless they have come in contact with that terminology through welfare systems or media,” LeRoy said.

According to LeRoy, often a survivor has an experience they perceive as an unhealthy relationship, domestic violence situation or a sexual assault. Victims often feel like they are in a relationship with the person who is exploiting them.

Just as each sex trafficking situation is unique, each legal case can is handled differently.

Identifying can be hard for any survivor, especially if that survivor is male, according to Amanda Swanson, the trafficking coordinator for the Oregon Department of Justice. It’s easy to forget that boys and young men also are trafficked, she said, because society automatically assumes they would be a trafficker or purchaser. For a male, she explained, it can be difficult because of sexual stigma, but also trafficking looks different for them.

“It looks a little bit different, whereas the romance really starts the grooming process with the girls. Boys, it's more out of necessity and possible acceptance of whatever their sexual identity they're struggling with or other things that they're struggling with,” Swanson said. “And then it becomes what they have to do to survive.”

While Cooper’s experience is different than most, she identifies as a sex trafficking victim and is working through the circumstances and situations she experienced that sometimes fall into complex gray areas.

Cooper actively works to share her story of being coerced to take a job from a man she considered a boyfriend and boss who ended up being her purchaser. She wants to educate others and provide her family and dance students the ability to fight through anything that holds them down.

After the experience was over, Cooper said it took her so long to realize what happened because she felt an overwhelming amount of shame.

“The thought of admitting, much less realizing, I had been somewhat of a prostitute was shameful and paralyzing,” Cooper said. “I was afraid of what people would think of me. Covering it and moving on seemed like a better solution.”


“I was afraid of what people would think of me. Covering it and moving on seemed like a better solution.”
Lindsey Cooper, Eugene sex trafficking survivor


Path to prosecution

One of the biggest hurdles for survivors is the notion of prosecuting their traffickers. Lane County's lack of resources to support survivor-centered solutions is creating significant problems for law enforcement as well as legal entities.

In the state of Oregon, sex trafficking is illegal and is prosecuted based on two separate laws: promoting prostitution and compelling prostitution.

According to Lane County Senior Prosecutor Katherine Green, promoting prostitution is when a person induces or persuades another person to engage in prostitution, and compelling is when “you are doing the same thing, but using force or intimidation to coerce an individual into being a prostitute.”

Compelling is a Measure 11 crime that carries a mandatory sentence of five years and 10 months, while promoting is a felony. Despite the legal capabilities, there are challenges when victims don’t want their traffickers prosecuted or don’t want to testify.

“We'll work with law enforcement to develop evidence around either one of those crimes, and there are challenges with these cases,” Green said. “So you have to sort of be creative in how you're going to bring a case and know the areas of the law that you can use to bring evidence in.”

When it comes to putting sex trafficking cases together and successfully prosecuting them, the process is greatly influenced by several barriers, such as funding, resources and reliable witnesses, according to Lane County District Attorney Patty Perlow.

An important part of Lane County’s situation is that this community is a destination for traffickers to find and bring victims, she said. Trafficking is a business model and there is a supply and demand for it in Lane County.

“These are business plans, business models, and there are customers waiting to take advantage of that,” Perlow said. “That is our shame, that we have a whole group of people that think it's OK to do it, purchase sex.”

While the Lane County District Attorney's office has protocols on how to work through compelling- and promoting-prostitution cases relating to sex trafficking, they prosecute far fewer than they want to, Perlow said.

The DA's office tried two compelling-prostitution cases in 2017.

As far as promoting-prostitution cases, 19 cases have been brought to the DA's office since 2016. Of those, six weren't officially filed, five were convicted by plea and two were dismissed. There is also one case involving a wanted defendant and another from 2018 still under review.

Sara Jensen, a victim advocate for the Lane County District Attorney's Office and member of the CSEC team, said there are many issues that have to be considered when working with victims of sex trafficking and prosecuting their traffickers.

For example, just because people fit the legal definition of victim, Jensen said, they may not identify as one because of a trauma bond, where the victim may believe they’re in a relationship with the trafficker, or they fear that testifying will put them in more danger.

Jensen is different from other advocates because she only gets involved when someone is being prosecuted and she works specifically on domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Even when a case has moved that far along in the process, Jensen said it’s hard for people to identify themselves as victims.

Because her involvement as a victim advocate is based on prosecution, Jensen works with far fewer sex trafficking survivors than she would like. Jensen said she has worked with two sex trafficking victims in her capacity as a victim advocate since 2009.

“I do provide services if I can, but I don't think that I provide as many services as I wish I could,” Jensen said. “Often because (victims are) not wanting to accept those (services) a lot of times in this stage.”

The lack of resources available to a victim also can negatively affect their ability to be a witness.

Denna Rawie, victim witness specialist for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said lack of housing or a stable environment can negatively impact a victim or survivor's healing process. Outside of that, it is sometimes hard to work with victims because they’ve just been taken from all that they know and asked to testify against that, and victims can push back, Rawie said.

“They're in a constant mode of hypervigilance, protecting themselves,” Rawie said. “That doesn't just turn off because we want to sit down and interview them and talk to them.”

For example, there isn’t a safe and secure detox center available for minors and youth, nor housing specifically available for sex trafficking victims in Lane County, Jensen said.

Detox centers are extremely important because many trafficking victims, adults and minors, have a drug dependency. In order for them to have access to certain shelter programs, resources or even to be stable enough to testify or be interviewed by law enforcement, they must be sober.

Perlow, the Lane County DA, said her office has a policy of not charging victims with a crime. But the lack of necessary resources for sex trafficking victims means once they are liberated, victims might wind up staying in a detention center just to keep them safe from their perpetrators.

“That’s only if we have no safety plan, there's nothing we can do to keep that person safe, and only until we have a plan in place," Perlow said.

The biggest need is safe, long-term housing, especially for teenagers, according to Rawie of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

That lack of housing can put in jeopardy any prosecution process. It's important to keep a victim stable during the process, which can sometimes take several years. Without these services, Rawie said it’s hard to keep a victim steady enough to be able to provide the testimony that is needed for a case.

“For a crime victim, if you don't have a place where they feel safe and secure, can lay their head down at night, and have those wraparound victim services ... we're not going to be able to usually keep them stable enough in order to essentially be a good witness,” Rawie said.

There is funding CSEC can access to place survivors in hotels during their liberation period, after they’ve gotten out of “the life” or are seeking resources, according to Sarah Stewart, executive director of Lane County child advocacy group Kids FIRST. But survivors often are trafficked in hotels, in which case being there may only retraumatize them.

So while officials might be able to prosecute a trafficker or even a sex purchaser, there is no stable plan in place for victims to help them move forward.

While there are good systems in place, county prosecutor Green said there are legislative fixes that could be made to better equip courts to prosecute sex trafficking cases without victims — their trauma and safety isn’t always taken into account when they are asked to participate in the prosecution of their trafficker.

“What we shouldn't expect (from) trafficking victims is for them to necessarily be cooperative,” Green said. “It's not always safe for them to be cooperative. We don't want to be putting them in further jeopardy by making them come to court.”

Green said she has had many instances where she built a strong case just on evidence, because the sex trafficking victim couldn't or wouldn't testify.

“There is this trauma bond with the trafficker that exists,” Green said. “Sometimes that doesn't end for months or even years and we have to work around that.”


Federal versus local

While Lane County officials and local law enforcement work together on how best to handle sex trafficking cases, federal agencies also partner with them as members of the CSEC team to address criminal proceedings when it comes to sex trafficking in the area.

The Eugene office of the U.S. Attorney’s Office covers everything south of Salem down to Josephine County, spanning from the coast to Eastern Oregon. While they deal with a much larger area of the state, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Sweet said most of the sex trafficking cases he’s dealt with have been in Lane County.

Florence Mackey, a victim specialist for the Salem, Eugene and Medford FBI offices, said the impact of sex trafficking in Lane County is not unlike other communities with similar demographics, but that working with victims still is complex and important for their contact with future agencies and officials.

“The public needs to recognize that sex trafficking in this community exists just as it exists everywhere,” Mackey said. “Working with survivors of sex trafficking is immensely complicated and rewarding. They are human beings with strengths who are resilient and are deserving of our efforts.”

There are different criteria that determine whether a local case is tried at the federal level or not, such as who presents the case to the attorney’s office, the amount of evidence available and who receives the case first. From there, teams of people, like the criminal justice committee of the CSEC team, meet to discuss the best possible outcome for the case.

“Because the FBI has offices all throughout the country, when you have cases that have more multistate connections, then it may be a case that the FBI and the federal government is in a better position to handle it,” Mackey said.

Not all cases federally or otherwise are easily charged and sentenced as trafficking cases. And when cases get close to blurred lines, such as trafficking versus exploitation of a child, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Potter says legal teams look for “the most readily provable offense.”

“We may not be able to charge a trafficking offense even if we strongly suspect it or there is other evidence that it’s happening,” Potter said. “So we look to see if there are other things we can charge in order to bring the perpetrator to justice."

This project was developed by Destiny Alvarez and Dana Sparks, Charles Snowden Excellence in Journalism reporting and multimedia interns for The Register-Guard. Follow Destiny on Twitter @DesJAlvarez or email Follow Dana on Twitter @danamsparks or email