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Village gathers to fight sex trafficking

Tualatin grads create a Village for One to battle child prostitution


by: JAIME VALDEZ - Austin Burresa and Cassandra Eichenberger who both graduated from Tualatin High  School in 2000 and have been friends since they were 14, found the Village For One  organization for victims of child trafficking.

When the Legislature adopted Senate Bill 673 last week, making sex trafficking of a child a felony, it was a small victory for Cassandra Eichenberger and Austin Burres, who have have worked with victims of sexual exploitation.

Eichenberger is a licensed clinical social worker and registered nurse. Burres is pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology. Both graduated with Tualatin High School’s class of 2000, and both found their more than 15-year friendship strengthened by a common professional experience: working with children who had been trafficked and forced into prostitution.

Tired of watching young victims receive treatment, only to end up back on the street, Burres and Eichenberger founded A Village for One last year. They plan to turn the fledgling nonprofit into a safe house for victims of sexual exploitation.

“We kept waiting for someone else to do it, build something the kids could live in and heal in so we could work there,” Eichenberger said. “But it wasn’t happening.”

Population unknown

A 2009 study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice showed that runaways and foster children are especially vulnerable to exploitation, but that victims of domestic minor sex trafficking come from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Some are kidnapped, but many are manipulated by traffickers they initially see as significant others or caretakers.

Because of the transient nature of the trade, there are few accurate statistics available about how many minors are being trafficked and exploited in a given area.

“For the Portland metro area, we’ve estimated there are as many as 200,” Eichenberger said. “For the nation, there’s anywhere between 100,000 to 300,000.”

According to a 2010 Department of Justice report, the average age for a child to be forced into prostitution is 13.

“The fact is, there’s so many people purchasing them,” Eichenberger added. “We’re talking doctors, lawyers, engineers — all across the economic spectrum. It really doesn’t hit just one area of town.”

Complicating factors

There are specialized task forces and focused law enforcement efforts that target abusers and customers, but rehabilitating victims is a complex endeavor: Eichenberger and Burres have both watched as victims exhibited an attachment to their abusers that resembles Stockholm Syndrome.

It is difficult, Eichenberger said, for an outside observer to understand why more victims aren’t flagging down law enforcement or seeking help on their own. But the kind of psychology that allows someone to stay in a domestically abusive situation also comes into play with children who have been forced into prostitution. Often, there is a cycle of grooming, where a pimp makes a victim feel loved, then isolates her socially, then beats her, then treats her with false kindness again — what Eichenberger describes as “a really ugly combination of domestic violence and child abuse.”

“(The victims) are so run down” by their pimps, Eichenberger said. “(Pimps) change their names, they change their identity, they make them feel so useless. When we get them out, a lot of times (victims) run back because they identify with that person so strongly, because of the psychological manipulation that occurs.”

Kevin Donegan, program director Janus Youth Programs, agreed.

“When you ask a young kid involved in human trafficking how they got involved, a huge percentage says, ‘My boyfriend,’ ” meaning the pimp. “Breaking that connection between the child and the pimp is very difficult, because they see it as they’re in control, this is their boyfriend, this is the person that cares for them, and they really don’t.”

Donegan added that many victims also have drug and alcohol dependencies.

“It’s part of the methodology of the pimp, to get (the victims) addicted to something, so they keep coming back,” he said.

Giving shelter

“(Victims) really do need somewhere people understand, give them a chance to kind of break down, and then rebuild them, give them an identity back, so they’re not just a ‘whore,’ not just a ‘slut,’ ” Eichenberger said.

One successful model for this is Athena House, operated by Janus. The seven-bed facility offers short- and long-term residential programs to victims of exploitation. With seven single rooms, the house serves 14- to 17-year-old victims who are often referred through a crisis program called Harry’s Mother.

“In the first year, we identified about 60 youth that came through different programs that were identified as human trafficking victims,” Donegan, who coordinates programs at Athena House, said. “We’ve served about 38 children this past fiscal year.”

Ideally, Village for One’s residential facility would be in a slightly rural location, to allow for equine therapy, gardening and a general sense of serenity with little traffic outside. Children would be given single rooms in eight-bed houses, divided by gender.

But Village for One would also have outpatient counseling and a drop-in center, Eichenberger says, and visibility in local schools.

The two still have their day jobs — Burres at the Multnomah County Crisis Line and Eichenberger at NW Primary Care. Working from a new office space in southeast Portland, they are pursuing licensing that will allow them to bill insurance providers as they raise funds through private donations and grants, with little illusion about the monumental task at hand.

“It’s not cheap to take a child that has gone through a ton of trauma and get them where they can get to feeling good again,” Eichenberger said.

They are supported by a board of volunteers that includes a pro bono lawyer and a real estate agent.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit’s name says it all.

“A lot of times people say it costs so much money to help these victims,” Eichenberger explained, “and what we say is, as a community, as a village, we actually unite for the sake of one child, whatever it takes.



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