The training was possible because of a $50,000 state grant awarded in June to the Human Trafficking Task Force of Clark County, a coalition of more than a dozen local agencies.

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When Jodi Gaylord answers certain 911 calls at the emergency dispatch center in Vancouver, details can raise red flags. She asks herself, “Could this be a sex-trafficking situation?”

“It crosses my mind more so now when I’m looking at calls,” said Gaylord, dispatch supervisor with Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (CRESA). “Especially when we’re tracking calls and it seems someone’s life may be in danger based on their location, (or) when parents report something is wrong, and it’s not just a runaway situation.”

Gaylord was just one dispatcher in four groups who attended a training on sex trafficking in October. CRESA dispatchers were educated on the subject by trained professionals, and what they learned can be used to inform police officers responding to calls.

Several things struck Gaylord about the training: the immense amount of investigative work the cases require; how indoctrinated the victims can become; and emerging tools to combat the issue, such as a cellphone app that shares photos of hotel rooms, which are used to lead law enforcement to a missing person’s location.

The training was possible because of a $50,000 state grant awarded in June to the Human Trafficking Task Force of Clark County, a coalition of more than a dozen local agencies that in some way have a stake in combating the practice of forced labor and sexual exploitation. The group tends to focus on the latter issue.

Despite being around for more than six years, the task force has maintained a low profile in the county, and the grant is the first it’s received. The work of its members is often unseen, such as when it helps parents whose children may have been forced or coerced into sex trafficking or when it offers housing to victims and survivors.

Task-force communications chair Michelle Bart said the money has allowed the organization to embark on new projects that will help its mission and increase its visibility in the community.

“Unlike years ago, trafficking is no longer underground,” Bart said. “You can go to the mall and see it happening right in front of you. The community needs to be aware and know what they’re seeing so they can help report things.”

What constitutes sex trafficking is nuanced. In general, sex trafficking happens when someone uses force, fraud or coercion to cause a commercial sex act with an adult or causes a minor to commit a commercial sex act.

Booming industry

What’s clear is it’s a booming industry.

Officials say it’s thriving due to “buyers” fueling the demand, coupled with traffickers and pimps exploiting vulnerable victims who often have difficulty escaping the lifestyle.

Also, sex trafficking is hard to track.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline tallies all the substantive calls it gets about human trafficking. Out of the 27,201 calls it received last year, 559 came from Washington.

The state with the most calls was California, which is noteworthy because, according to law enforcement, much of the trafficking here and in Pacific Coast states is carried out along Interstate 5.

States also report known cases of sex trafficking to the hotline. Of the 4,460 cases reported last year, 80 were in Washington.

Getting accurate data

Local data is much harder to come by.

“Accurate data has not been collected on that level,” said Kay Vail, task-force chairwoman and co-founder. “The state of Washington has task forces statewide trying to collect it, but there are barriers. For example, some agencies want to keep the confidentiality of their clients private, so they don’t share it.”

The county’s task force tends to focus on sexual exploitation and the trafficking of minors. Bart said its members want to find victims at a young age, because the older they get the harder it can be to get them help.

According to Shared Hope International, a common age a child enters sex trafficking is 14 to 16.

Clark County Juvenile Justice Center and Vancouver police carried out an informal count of underage victims several years ago, Vail said. The total number of kids who met their criteria for sex trafficking was 58, she said.

A portion of the grant money is going toward obtaining more accurate numbers. A new database will serve as a central location for all entities — law enforcement, courts, nonprofits — to enter sex-trafficking-related data.

The Children’s Justice Center oversaw the previous version of the database. Other organizations likely had their own. Now, the contributing entities, all of which are thoroughly vetted, will be invited to pool information in hopes of creating a clearer picture of sex trafficking in Clark County.

Whoever contributes to the database has to sign a memorandum of agreement, and so far, not everyone involved is willing to do so. Special insurance and other requirements are needed by many of the task-force members’ agencies before they can help out.

“There’s a lot that’s going into getting the database up and running the way we want it to. Those requirements are needed because often traffickers are able to manipulate the system,” Bart said. “So, we felt the need to fund it with the grant money.”

The grant money will also fund a new website for the task force, more trainings and money to relocate or protect people wrapped up in sex trafficking, if needed.

For its website, the task force for years has used a Facebook page. The new website will serve as a portal to information about sex trafficking and related resources.

Ongoing training will be carried out for members of the task force so they can become leaders in the field, said Vail, and others wanting training can also request it. That can include training outside of Washington — law enforcement in Louisiana has asked for it.

The grant money is a start, Bart said. She said it is simply a “chunk of change” when compared to what could be done. And the source of the grant, the Washington Department of Children and Family Services, put restrictions on how the task force could use the funds.

Moving forward, the task force can apply for more grants. One idea is obtaining funds for an officer solely dedicated to sex trafficking cases.

Aim is to be proactive

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office currently handles such cases reactively, Chief Criminal Deputy John Chapman said in an email. Chapman is a member of the task force.

“Our tactical detective unit is usually responsible in these investigations and we have given special training to (a detective),” Chapman said in an email. “Due to staffing, the past couple of years, we have had to curtail our proactive efforts.”

The county’s Child Abuse Unit prosecutor Colin Hayes said the number of court cases involving child sex trafficking falls between one and three each year. The cases are difficult to try before jurors, but that’s not the reason the prosecutors’ unit sees so few.

“At this time, local law enforcement does not have enough resources to dedicate personnel to the proactive investigation of trafficking cases,” Hayes said.

A sergeant and detective from the Vancouver Police Department’s Digital Evidence Cybercrime Unit sit on the task force. Sgt. Joe Graaff said the Police Department does reactive and proactive sex-trafficking investigations. Limited resources means those investigations have focused only on those involving children, Graaff said.

“While the majority of our investigations are reactive, the unit has learned of new approaches to sex trafficking investigations that will make more efficient use of time and resources,” the sergeant said in an email. “2018 will see an increased level of proactive enforcement targeting both the buyers of sex with children and those trafficking children for the sex trade.”