“Anybody in here have teenage daughters or granddaughters that go to high school in this area? What school?” Joan Gwordske, a Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department detective, posed this question to an audience on Thursday evening at the Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church. Hands went up and crowd members responded with high schools that included Woodinville, Cascade and Edmonds-Woodway. “I have cases with girls in every single one of those schools and probably every other one that you can think of in Snohomish County,” she said.
The cases that Detective Gwordske referred to are sex trafficking cases.
Gwordske, the Sheriff’s Department’s only full-time sexual trafficking detective and a member of the FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force, was a featured speaker at “Our Children Are Not for Sale,” a program presented by the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County. The purpose of the program was to give attendees a better awareness and understanding of the issue of sexual trafficking — a very real problem in Snohomish County and our local communities.
The evening began with a special screening of the award-winning film, The Long Night, a documentary feature film by Emmy award-nominated visual journalist Tim Matsui. Set in the Seattle area, the film explores the crisis of minors who are coerced into the American sex trade. Viewers learn about this crisis through the real-life stories of seven people whose lives have been deeply and forever affected by domestic minor sex trafficking — two young girls ensnared in the sex trade, the parents of one of the girls, and three police officers.
The story of Natalie, a 15-year-old high school student in Western Washington, shows how quickly a young person can become a victim of sexual trafficking. Trying to escape “the pressures of being a kid” — pressures like being expected to get good grades — Natalie runs away to Seattle. After just a few days on the streets, she is drawn into a life of prostitution — one of the only ways that young runaways can support themselves on the streets.
Natalie’s family is devastated. Her father, a stay-at home dad, spends his nights on Pacific Highway South searching for his daughter in massage parlors and other locations frequented by prostitutes. He begins drinking heavily to deal with the pain of his daughter’s disappearance.
Natalie’s story has a better ending than those of most under-age victims involved in sex trafficking. After four months working the streets, Natalie and her 32-year-old pimp — who Natalie thinks she’s in love with, even after he become abusive — are arrested. Following her arrest, Natalie is reunited with her family after receiving counseling and treatment. Natalie is one of the lucky ones. Many, if not most, young people involved with sex trafficking don’t have a family to return to, or they ran away to escape an abusive home life.
The movie doesn’t provide easy answers to the complex problem of domestic minor sex trafficking, but there are a few moments of hope, like Natalie’s return to her family, and the efforts of Andy Conner, one of the police officers in the film.
After arresting the same two girls more than a dozen times over a period of a few weeks, Conner realized that repeatedly arresting prostitutes wasn’t solving anything. Conner came to believe that most of the girls are trapped in a lifestyle that they can’t get out of without help. Unfortunately, help wasn’t available. Conner discovered that there wasn’t “a single comprehensive recovery program in existence for young women caught up in sex trafficking or prostitution in the Seattle and Washington area.”
So Conner started a program. He worked with a local non-profit to found The Genesis Project, which provides services that include a drop-in center that is as a safe-haven for women and girls who have been involved in commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking. The program also helps girls who are rescued stay off the streets, with services that include health care, training and education, long-term housing and rehabilitation.
The screening of The Long Night was followed by presentations from Detective Gwordske, and by Elysa Hovard, the director of putreach for Cocoon House, an Everett-based non-profit that serves homeless and at-risk youth in Snohomish County.
Speaking about sex trafficking in Snohomish County, Hovard said, “It’s happening in our community like the detective said.” She went on to explain why a safe place to stay and housing is a key need for at-risk youth. “We see a lot of these young people under bridges. They are being trafficked or trafficking themselves for drugs, money and often just for a couch to stay on. They’ll trade sex for a couch.”
Hovard explained that like Genesis House, Cocoon House provides “a low barrier drop-in center almost exactly like that. It’s welcoming, we feed them, we clothe them, they take a shower.” Cocoon House also provides access to short- and long-term housing for at-risk 18- to 24-year-olds to get them off the street and to help them deal with addictions and other problems that are often drive their involvement in sex trafficking. Donations help meet those housing needs, and shoes, clothing and a variety of other items are needed for their programs. More information is available at https://www.cocoonhouse.org/
At the end of the evening, the League of Women Voters distributed a “Take Action” contact card and a handout that identifies ways to help with the sex trafficking problem. The contact card is designed to help potential victims of sex trafficking realize if they are being targeted by a sex trafficker, and if so, how to get help.
The card also includes a call to action for everyone: “Remember: If you see something, say something.” The problem isn’t just under bridges or on downtown streets, it’s occurring in local communities and neighborhoods. Detective Gwordske noted that, “It’s not uncommon for victims to be going full-time to school. I had a girl who not only went to school, but was on the soccer team, and was still wrapped up in this life.”
The free screening of The Long Night was made possible by a grant from Verdant Health and was co-sponsored by the American Association of University Women, Edmonds SnoKing branch, and by Cocoon House. Learn more about the film, view the trailer, or request a screening for a school or community group at www.thelongnightmovie.com.
— Story and photos by Michael McAuliffe