They showed up to raise awareness, yes. But also to send an important message.
“We want survivors to see that the community does support them,” said JoDee Garretson, executive director of Support, Advocacy & Resource Center in Richland, which organized a walk Friday against human trafficking.
The crime happens in the Tri-Cities in surprising numbers, with survivors here ranging from toddlers to senior citizens.
Hundreds of law enforcement officers, court officials, social service workers, advocates and others turned out for “Shine the Light on Human Trafficking,” aimed at bringing attention to the crime and showing survivors that they’re not alone.
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The event started out with speeches at the Lampson International building in Kennewick, and then continued with a walk over the cable bridge. Participants carried blue glow sticks to “shine the light.”
Although trafficking is a growing problem, it’s a crime that’s often misunderstood, Garretson said.
It doesn’t necessarily include transporting victims from one country to another, and can and does happen in a place like the Tri-Cities.
It involves using force, fraud or coercion to push people into labor and/or commercial sex acts, such as prostitution or pornography. Any child under 18 who’s induced to perform a commercial sex act is a victim, even if coercion wasn’t involved.
Isolation, fear and shame
Laurel Holland, a Benton County deputy prosecutor, has handled numerous human trafficking and child exploitation cases.
They’ve varied immensely case to case, “but one thing that they’ve all had in common is the victims in these cases have shared a sense of isolation, of fear and of shame regarding these harms they’ve suffered,” Holland told the crowd Friday.
Human trafficking and child exploitation may exist in every community, “but as you can see by the number of people here today, our community is not ignoring the fact that these crimes do occur in our midst,” she said.
Support, Advocacy & Resource Center has a program to help sex trafficking survivors. It’s served 147 people in the past 18 months.
Since July, it’s had 57 new clients, including four who were under 5 years old and two who were over age 60.
Kids traded for money, drugs
When children are trafficked, it’s often a parent or other caretaker who exchanges them for money, drugs or the like.
Older victims may be forced through means from violence to manipulation.
Often, victims are in their teens or early 20s; many are women, but men also are trafficked.
It’s not an issue that can be solved by one person or a few people, said Maureen Astley, a Franklin County deputy prosecutor.
“It takes a community. It takes a village,” she told the crowd, thanking attendees for showing up to help.
Kennewick police Detective Rick Runge also spoke, along with state Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick.
Garretson said she hopes victims see the lights and hear the message that they’re recognized and supported.
“The more that victims see the community come forward and embrace them, the more will come forward,” she said.
For more on SARC, including its program for sex trafficking victims, go to http://supportadvocacyresourcecenter.org.