If someone had asked me a week ago about what the City should be doing to help prevent sex trafficking, I probably would have said that it’s not a problem here. During my first five years with the City, I never heard a complaint about the problem and was unaware of what the term really meant. I’ve read about children being victimized by the trade in Southeast Asia, among other places, but did not think the issue was very important here.
A brief presentation at Albany’s last Human Relations Commission meeting made me see things differently. I learned that an estimated 300,000 children are involved in the trade every year in the U.S. and that the average age of girls entering prostitution is 13. Most of these girls are runaways who are contacted by a pimp within 48 hours of leaving home. A subsequent conversation with Police Chief Ed Boyd revealed that the Albany Police Department deals with 4-5 cases a year and that there is reason to believe there are more unreported cases. Mary Zelinka, the advocacy services manager for the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence (CARDV), told the Human Relations Commission that most women involved in activities such as prostitution or stripping are victims whose earnings are directed to pimps who use drugs and violence to control their “employees.” We also heard that Portland has one of the most significant problems in the nation and, according to a report from the organization ECTAP-USA (End Child Trafficking and Prostitution), ranks second in the nation for child prostitution.
I discussed the problem with department directors at our last staff meeting and advised those who have programs for children to make contact with CARDV to arrange training for our employees. Increased emphasis on the dangers of leaving home; directing children to programs that can help increase self-esteem (YMCA, Boys & Girls Club); and helping adults recognize danger signals may all be ways the City can help to address the problem.
The Human Relations Commission was formed several years ago to help make Albany a more welcoming, diverse community. The Commission has sponsored a number of educational events, and this year is helping to organize a community picnic at Eleanor Hackleman Park in association with National Night Out on August 3. Issues such as mental health services, perceptions of minority communities, and bridging differences among people have been discussed and addressed by the Commission over the years. I have appreciated the positive work done by our volunteer commission members and the value of their educational efforts. Crimes against our children are crimes against our future, and I regret my ignorance of a threat that poses a particular danger in our region. I hope some new emphasis by City staff will make Albany not only more welcoming but safer for all children.