A reason to hope: Human Trafficking Awareness Month

January 28, 2016

Commissioner McKeel brought forward Thursday's Human Trafficking Awareness Month proclamation.

They started out small. Less than small. They started working for free.

“Our program started with one completely unfunded advocate providing support to all survivors,” Lena Sinha of the Sexual Assault Resource Center told commissioners Thursday as the board proclaimed January Human Trafficking Awareness Month in Multnomah County.

They had to defend the teens who had been bought and sold for sex. Young people “who were seen as criminal and throwaways by most of society,” she said.

Much has changed since the unfunded pilot launched at the Beaverton nonprofit in 2008. The following year Diane McKeel was elected to the Multnomah Board of County Commissioners; when she began a seven-year campaign to raise awareness and beef up services to survivors in the region.

“It has truly been a journey,” McKeel said as she brought forward the final proclamation on human trafficking of her term. “The values of all the partnerships we’ve developed is what sets this issue apart.”

McKeel advocated for federal grants that helped the Sexual Assault Resource Center hire staff to keep their trafficking program going. Then she supported them for another grant that doubled the size of their team. Today they are a staff of eight.

McKeel has sponsored lectures, held press conferences, testified in Washington D.C. and lobbied state legislators for more services. Most recently she convinced funders that those services shouldn’t stop when a survivor turns 18.

Between 2009 and 2013 nearly 500 people were identified as victims of sex trafficking in the Portland Metro area, according to Portland State University research and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And Multnomah County established a program to help child victims of sexual exploitation. They are no longer seen as criminals, or “throwaways.”

Instead they’re survivors with something to offer; some have become providers themselves in a widening network of services.

“We have built a collaborative system of care that I believe is a national model,” McKeel said, her voice catching in her throat. “I am proud to be part of this, to ensure that we recognize the children and adults who are lost and vulnerable to exploitation. And give them a reason to hope.”

Service providers and advocates against human trafficking pose with the Board of County Commissioners on Thursday.