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THE sex industry is notoriously difficult to track. A lack of solid data undermines efforts to save children from being exploited throughout Washington state. It’s hard to solve a problem if no one understands its true nature.

A 2008 study commissioned by the City of Seattle concluded that anywhere from 300 to 500 youths are exploited in King County, but that range is considered a low estimate. Organizations often gather that information on their own, but they are not reporting it to any single source for analysis or review.

The Center for Children & Youth Justice is now working with the Washington State Center for Court Research to develop an improved model for identifying commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC). This would help the courts, police, social workers, counselors and health-care providers to coordinate their efforts to rescue kids from pimps.

Think of the annual One Night Count of the homeless in King County and the ways that estimate has increased public engagement and guided public policy. A similar measurement of sex-trafficking victims would ensure services are directed where they are most needed.

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Vital to this effort is the CSEC Statewide Coordinating Committee, formed by the Legislature in 2013 to find best practices and implement a model protocol for treating exploited youths.

The panel convened on May 22 in Seattle to review trends and preliminary data collected by
pilot sites in King County, Whatcom County, the Inland Northwest region, Yakima and the Tri-Cities.

Advocates representing each site reported increased awareness in their communities, but are concerned about sustaining their local response efforts — an indication more must be done to fight sex trafficking.

The Legislature and private donors should invest more funds into collecting and maintaining CSEC data from agencies statewide that work with abused youths. Gathering this information would provide law enforcement and human-service workers with a smarter sense of where exploited victims are located and to know which interventions work best.

Data can be a powerful tool to protect innocent children from getting trapped in the commercial sex trade.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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