U.S. Rep. Greg Walden met with law enforcement, Union County Commissioners, Grande Ronde Hospital staff and community members to talk about human trafficking Wednesday at the Meisner Conference Room in La Grande.
An estimated 300,000 American children are at risk of being trafficked in the United States, according to documentation provided by Walden that listed old and new legislation to combat human trafficking.
According to the Polaris project, an organization specifically designed to help stop trafficking, “Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery, a multi-billion dollar criminal industry that denies freedom to 20.9 million people around the world. And no matter where you live, chances are it’s happening nearby. From the girl forced into prostitution at a truck stop to the man discovered in a restaurant kitchen, stripped of his passport and held against his will. All trafficking victims share one essential experience: the loss of freedom.”
Walden has been working toward shutting down websites that promote trafficking.
“It’s a huge problem,” he said.
Union County Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen and UCSO Deputy Dane Jensen were on hand to speak to the law enforcement side of the issue.
“We don’t see a lot of it right now in Union County,” Rasmussen said.
The sheriff said Jensen has specific training in domestic situations and is the lead domestic violence investigator for the sheriff’s office.
Jensen said he knows of at least one human trafficking case years ago that involved a minor.
He said they worked with Umatilla County and the Federal Bureau of Investigation “to try to get (the victim) out.”
That challenge was a topic of discussion at Wednesday’s meeting. Victims have a hard time trusting law enforcement and will not come forward to ask them for help.
GRH Emergency Room Nurse Manager April Brock said she was asked to come to the meeting and give her input about what she sees in the hospital’s emergency room. She said she has done some research and found ERs often have contact with victims of trafficking due to injuries sustained in the trade.
“(The victims) can’t always speak (up) though,” Brock said.
She said research shows victims of trafficking visit the ER an average of 10 times before they are able to escape their situation.
Brock said she is legally obligated to ask all patients who go through the ER a series of questions, including whether they feel safe at home. She said ER staff often go through those questions quickly out of habit, and feels there needs to be training for ER staff to learn to spot victims of trafficking. She has requested training to show them how to screen and what to look for.
Even when she believes someone is a victim of domestic violence, they are often accompanied by the abuser and are not able to give an honest answer.
April Oswald, of Wallowa County, said she was a victim of sexual abuse and human trafficking throughout her childhood and was in attendance to tell her story.
She said no amount of training will help the ER staff — or law enforcement — because trafficking victims don’t trust anyone.
“(With) our background, it’s hard to trust people,” she said.
She said the most beneficial thing to do is provide resources so victims can help themselves and be able to talk to those who are specifically trained to help with trafficking victims.
See more in Friday's edition of The Observer.