Tri-Cities first area in Washington to enact policy to help sexually exploited children

Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldApril 18, 2014 

The Tri-Cities on Friday became the first community in the state to put in place a protocol for dealing with child victims of commercial sexual exploitation, a form of human trafficking.

Representatives from more than a dozen local law enforcement agencies and nonprofits signed a memorandum of understanding during a ceremony at the Richland Police Department.

The document provides a road map for dealing with cases and helping the victims, such as prostituted youth.

"It adds an ownership and accountability for each of the agencies. They understand their roles, what's expected of them. It also puts us together working on a team. Victim issues are so complicated, (and) to have others' expertise to draw upon is critical," said JoDee Garretson, executive director of the Support, Advocacy & Resource Center in Kennewick.

She's also co-director of the Tri-Cities Coalition Against Trafficking, which has been working on the protocol for months. The coalition dates to 2012 and has the vision of a coordinated community response to combat human trafficking.

It received a grant from the Seattle-based Center for Children & Youth Justice for a two-day training, held last year, on how to identify and respond to cases of commercial sexual exploitation of children.

The coalition also was to begin working on a community protocol and provide feedback to the center, which has the goal of establishing a statewide protocol for dealing with such cases.

Four other communities received similar grants. The Tri-City area is the first to complete its protocol.

Officials on Friday praised the collaboration that led to the Tri-Cities pact. "This has been a community effort," said Tirsa Butler, coalition co-director. "It's been incredible."

During the ceremony, numerous officials -- from the Benton and Franklin county sheriffs to local police chiefs and leaders of groups such as the Tri-City Union Gospel Mission and the My Friends Place youth homeless shelter -- lined up to add their signatures to the protocol document.

Richland Police Chief Chris Skinner, another coalition co-director, said the idea is to bring the problem out of the shadows and be proactive about how to deal with it.

"True vision isn't waiting for a problem to be so pervasive in a community that you then turn around and try to find a way to fix it," he said. "What true vision is, is seeing the indicators in our community ... and being proactive enough and courageous enough to do something about it.

I think what you'll see here today is a very visionary and courageous attempt to address the issues of domestic minor sex trafficking."

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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