POULSBO — It’s a hard truth to accept: There are women and children in Kitsap County that are being trafficked, usually in the sex trade.
But Shawna Seals, chair of the North Kitsap Human Trafficking Committee, said she has noticed that more people are aware of this problem.
“We’re doing our jobs. They’re becoming aware,” Seals said. “There are people working on many levels to reach the people that would be victims.”
For the second year, Seals helped organize Break Free Kitsap, a series of human trafficking awareness events throughout Kitsap County in the past two weeks. This year’s theme: “There is Hope.”
Seals invited back Seattle Police Detective Harry James to talk about human trafficking in the Puget Sound area, Wednesday at Poulsbo City Hall.
“I was doing human trafficking before human trafficking was called human trafficking,” James said. Prostitution and child pornography and trafficking are his beats; James has worked Vice for 33 years. Lately, he’s worked with the FBI under its reorganized Child Exploitation Task Force unit. James estimates he’s investigated more than 10,000 cases. “I’m still doing the same job,” he said.
Last year, Seals presented human trafficking as a larger problem among all labor industries — a farm laborer or office cleaner forced to work without pay.
This year, the focus was on prostitution. James said 15 is the average age a woman falls into prostitution, likely through force or coercion, and if she isn’t caught or brought to police attention before the age of 18, she is not considered a human trafficking statistic. Conclusion: the problem hits more people than previously thought.
“I’m not a statistics person,” James said. “I’m a reality person … She’s still a victim to me.”
Poulsbo Acting Police Chief Bob Wright said while there is “plenty of vice to go around,” Poulsbo has not seen a large problem in human trafficking. “Wherever there are drugs there’s obviously an additional increased opportunity for these kinds of crimes,” Wright said.
The department has one detective, a position which rotates among the patrol officers. The detective receives additional training when appointed, such as human trafficking awareness and investigative techniques, but training classes and workshops are offered to all patrol officers.
“That’s how more and more [officers] get trained,” Wright said. “Once an officer or detective … gets training in a certain area, they can obviously impart that information on the other officers.”
There were 110 calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center made from Washington state between July and September. Calls come from educators, medical professionals, law enforcement and community members. Seattle had the most calls, including 21 reports of potential human trafficking in three months. Kitsap wasn’t immune; one call came from Bainbridge Island, two from Bremerton, and one from Hansville.
James said people’s attitudes have changed in the 20 years he’s presented on trafficking.
“It’s important for [the audience] to understand why these girls are there,” James said. He said there is a profile for these girls — abusive homes, runaways — but “they come from all walks of life.”
The girls are recruited from many places: shopping malls, schools, parks, bus stations, homeless shelters, theaters, internet, jail or youth detention centers. James said girls in schools aren’t being taught the warning signs of these recruiters, and how to avoid them, but he has given presentations to schools before.
Jessi Chinn, a 20-year-old Northwest University student from Bremerton, attended Wednesday’s meeting because she feels passionate about human trafficking issues.
“Especially the trauma that comes with it,” she said. Chinn is studying counseling psychology and said she may go into helping human trafficking victims professionally.
“It seems like something that’s been everywhere but no one wants to talk about it,” Chinn said.
Seals passed out cards and stickers with the hotline (1-888-3737-888), encouraging folks to call the number if they see something suspicious.Break Free Kitsap is hosting two more events: an awareness workshop in Silverdale and a benefit concert in Bremerton.
Not for Sale Kitsap hosts a Hope4Justice AWARE workshop Saturday, 1-5 p.m., at the Silverdale Haselwood YMCA, 3909 NW Randall Way. Pre-register for the workshop at www.eventbrite.com/event/4923312761.
Coffee Oasis hosts a benefit concert Saturday, 7 p.m., at 822 Burwell St. in Bremerton.
Visit breakfreekitsap.wordpress.com/events for more information.