“Invest in survivors” — Board proclaims January 2024 Human Trafficking Awareness Month

January 23, 2024
Today, Tabitha Keefer belongs to a tight-knit community, working a solid job as a data analyst with a supportive partner in her life. She's also a strong advocate for people who are being trafficked

But 10 years ago, she was in a different, darker place. Isolated. Keefer, herself, was a victim of trafficking. People saw her as a commodity, including her own mother. Help felt out of reach, and she endured the threat of violence.

If it weren’t for therapy and the support of experts, she says, she wouldn’t be here now — or active in her community. What helped the most was real-life support: face-to-face connections with doctors, advocates, therapists and more.

“What you see today — me — is the result of intense trauma and therapy,” she told the Board of County Commissioners during a Thursday, Jan. 11, board meeting. “To invest in survivors is to invest in the future.” 

Keefer spoke as an invited guest as the Board proclaimed January 2024 Human Trafficking Awareness Month in Multnomah County. The observance informs the public about human trafficking and the role community members can play in preventing and addressing it.

Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to extract labor for economic gain. Victims and survivors of trafficking often find themselves involved with the justice and emergency health care systems. Historically marginalized communities are trafficked at higher rates. 

“I was honored to sponsor this proclamation that both recognizes the tireless work of our community partners and reminds everyone in our community of what a devastating, horrific issue human trafficking is,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. “It is a public health issue, it is a public safety issue, and it does not just happen in the shadows.”

Human trafficking disproportionately impacts youth, LGBTQIA+, and communities of color

Each year, millions of people are trafficked worldwide. Human trafficking harms people of all backgrounds, and victims can be of any age, race, gender or nationality. However, LGBTQIA+, Black, Indigenous and Immigrant communities experience disproportionate rates of trafficking. 

Youth are disproportionately affected, as well. According to the National Network for Youth, 1 in 5 runaway and homeless youths is a victim of human trafficking. LGBTQIA+ youth and youth involved in foster care both experience trafficking at higher rates than their peers.

“Forced labor is very real in this country and it is impacting our immigrant communities and refugee communities,” Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said. “Also, we are seeing more child-exploited forced labor here.”

Locally, the County-funded New Day program served 197 youth in fiscal year 2023, all of whom were identified as sex trafficking victims or at high risk of being trafficked. The program is survivor-led and provides mentorship, culturally specific advocacy, housing, mental health and recovery support, 24/7 crisis lines, and sex trafficking curriculum to people ages 12 to 26 in Multnomah County. 

River James is New Day’s outreach coordinator. James has personally served more than 170 youth since starting in September 2022. They said meeting youth where they are — through face-to-face connection — is crucial for helping people take the first steps away from their trafficker. 

James shared a story about one client, Olivia, who they met weekly at a McDonald’s. It was the only time away from Olivia’s trafficker. They would use that time for safety planning, or sometimes to talk about Olivia’s dreams for the future. Eventually, Olivia was ready to take action. She worked with New Day to get connected to a confidential shelter. It’s been a year since her escape, and she’s now in school pursuing a career as a nurse.

“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of direct connection, not a wait list for survivors,” James said. “At New Day, we get to support survivors by forming deep relationships and providing tangible resources.”

Taking a public health approach to human trafficking

Historically, authorities and lawmakers have treated trafficking as a criminal issue. In recent years, experts have determined a public health approach can be effective in addressing the health issues caused by human trafficking, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, challenges with substance use and other conditions.

But people who have been or who are actively being trafficked face numerous barriers to the help they need. Many advocates for victims argue it’s unfair to criminalize people who are being trafficked against their consent. Experts have called for more investments in housing, schooling, access to technology, and pre- and post-incarceration services.

Lorena de Gray is an outreach manager with Project UNICA, which provides culturally specific mental health services to Latine families affected by domestic violence. Many of the people Project UNICA serves need help with meaningful economic opportunities, educational resources, and basic needs such as food, clothing, hygiene services and medical care. 

Limited access to services that are responsive to cultural values and norms can compound the challenges brought on by human trafficking. Language accessibility and the additional barriers of being undocumented only add trauma, de Gray said. 

“Safe and judgment-free, linguistically appropriate spaces are crucial so, as a community, we can continue to support those seeking assistance and a life free of violence,” de Gray said. 

A collaborative approach to ending human trafficking

The Multnomah County Sex Trafficking Collaborative is working to solve the overlapping and systemic issues at the heart of the human trafficking crisis. The goal: end trafficking and improve care for survivors by pooling resources and coordinating across systems. 

The collaborative includes law enforcement, prosecutors, mental health providers and culturally specific advocacy programs. By bringing in people from different backgrounds, the collaborative is better able to identify and support survivors; investigate, prosecute and supervise offenders; and build community education, awareness and prevention. 

Through a community advisory board, people with lived experience have a direct role in shaping the work of the collaborative. In 2023, the fourth cohort of survivors shared their expert recommendations to the County. Among them was creating new funding to increase mental health and peer support services for survivors, said Claire Barrera, the sex trafficking senior strategist and coordinator of the collaborative.

Barrera read the proclamation declaring January Human Trafficking Awareness Month in Multnomah County. Board members thanked the proclamation participants for speaking out in support of human trafficking victims. 

“I want to thank those of you who shared your stories for your courage and your bravery, for speaking up and your advocacy,” Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards said, “not just for yourselves but for the broader community.” 

Commissioner Lori Stegmann expressed her interest in increasing investments for youth experiencing human trafficking. 

“I am really concerned about the lack of services for youth,” she said. “I am hoping as we go into our budget season having more shelter options, more housing for youth, that is an area that the County should step up to and I am looking forward to that.”

“I think our public policies, our public spending, our public practices can be used to withhold love from those in our community and they can be used to expand and express love,” Commissioner Jesse Beason told the panelists. “I want to thank you for the work you are doing to translate our public’s spending and practices into love for folks that belong in our community."