KENT, Wash. - Sex trafficking arrests have revealed a disturbing underbelly of crime in a south King County community. So far in January, Kent Police Department arrested 25 people accused of luring and exploiting young victims.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as more people learn and work from home on the internet, predators also logged on trying to take advantage of the vulnerable.
"It has offered an opportunity for the sex traffickers and the pimps and stuff to leverage that and really amp up their presence as well," said Assistant Chief Jarod Kasner of the Kent Police Department. "It is a continuous business that just keeps overflowing."
Of the two dozen arrests so far, many of the crimes exploit minors—from sexual abuse to attempted rape and prostitution. Kasner said it’s an ongoing global problem that finds its way in even the most unassuming communities.
"It’s not surprising or uncommon to have people from outside the area and the region specifically come to this area to conduct that type of business just because the internet really doesn’t have any boundaries," said Kasner. "They’re going to seek out where they think law enforcement is not engaged, not able to get them."
The department’s Special Investigation Unit is paying close attention to trends on social media and other online tools that could be traps for child exploitation. Court documents from one of the 25 arrests said a man in his 60’s was, "attempting to use online dating apps to have sex with minors." Investigators set up a fake account to bait the man for more messages and a phone number.
"The messages are encrypted. They’re using back sights, they’re using all sorts of covert type engagement to profit from this. And so we also have to look at those avenues and strategize to combat those," said Kasner.
Part of their strategy is prevention through the help of community partners like Kent Youth and Family Services. Paul Tan is the program director with KYFS’s Watson Manor Programs. He said some of the work they do is education about the stigmas of sex trafficking.
"It isn’t just someone from central America being trafficked up here, from Asia being trafficked over. It’s really about our own young adults being identified as having other needs that aren’t being met," said Tan. "Whether they’re financial needs, needs of housing, other types of resources. But some of it is just that engagement—that sense that young adults don’t have a caring adult in their life that the trafficker, the pimp, the exploiter will leverage that and actually befriend them or reach out to them online, on their phone, in the mall, or just on the street."
Tan said young people who are bullied or marginalized are more susceptible to these crimes. While his team finds new ways to raise awareness in the virtual world – he said the community can help by uplifting the youth.
"We need as a community in this new 2021 world to say let's come together. Let’s work with our strengths to be able to not let people fall through the cracks. Let’s be kind individuals, let’s be good individuals, let’s think about our neighbor," said Tan.
The police department also works closely with King County Prosecutors Office in fighting sex-trafficking and child exploitation. Kasner said it will take entire communities around the world to help stop the crime and protect people of all ages.
"There are a lot of people that are vulnerable and being taken advantage of. And so, by staying focused and dedicated we are helping people and hopefully making an impact," said Kasner.
Community members can help make an impact by becoming familiar with the warning signs. This could be new items like clothes, jewelry, expensive gifts, new friends, a change of behavior and disconnecting from familiar people and things.
Victims and survivors of trafficking in the Kent area can get support and connected to resources with the help of KYFS. More information is available on the organization’s website. There is also support available for those looking for help throughout King County and Washington state.