Doing Whatever it Takes — Addressing Sexual Exploitation of Children in Tillamook County

By Tillamook County Commissioner David Yamamoto

This is the most difficult discussion I have ever had to conduct. I never, ever, would have thought that this topic would need to be breached here in Tillamook County. I am concerned about the reaction of Tillamook County residents to this discussion, but I am determined to be a part of the solution…and I hope you will all do the same.
The issue is labeled CSEC, Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children. Our Juvenile Dept. Director, Star Felty, came to me a few months ago and told me she had been contacted by multiple community partners about this problem. I told her it was not possible this was happening here.
Star went on to explain the problem like this: We have a population of at-risk youth, including those who are homeless and from unstable homes in Tillamook County and many of these kids couch surf. They are looking to get basic needs like food, shelter, clothing, and money. There is also a small adult population that is ready to take advantage of these vulnerable children. I was stunned.
I started my inquiry by talking to many people here in Tillamook County…Sheriff’s Office, Police Chiefs, District Attorney, Circuit Court, School District Administrators, Health Department, Adventist Health, Tillamook Family Counseling, Women’s Resource Center and many others.

I quickly concluded that we have a problem and the only tools we currently have to confront this problem is with law enforcement and the courts. I feel that while these are important tools, they should not be the only or even primary methods of addressing this problem. Tillamook County needs additional resources such as services and programs to help our children. Another big gap for Tillamook County is the lack of youth-specific non-profits. Often, we are asking these kids to cooperate with law enforcement or the courts without having anything to offer in terms of programs or services in return.
I then switched my focus to other Oregon Counties and had many conversations with Commissioners from across the State. When I was talking to other small, rural counties, their initial reaction, like my own, was one of denial. As I explained the CSEC issue of at-risk and homeless youth couch surfing, I could see the wheels turning in their heads and many of them have responded to me expressing dismay at what they too were finding. All were interested in seeking solutions.
My conversations with larger counties were different. Most have established services and programs and they are addressing the problem as best they can. They have limited but critical support from the State…something not being offered to small, rural counties due to staffing and budgetary constraints. This rural/urban divide does not sit well with me.
Let me briefly describe the issues I see. First and foremost, we must remember we are dealing with children’s lives and this is clearly child abuse. It is equally important to understand that these children are victims, but many don’t even self-identify as victims of sexual abuse. This is just life as they know it.
For whatever reason, many of these kids are homeless and lack any form of direction, although there are instances of familial, generational sexual abuse occurring.
There are drug abuse issues often initiated by the offender as a method to control these children. Mental health issues are also common. While these issues are often thought of as prevalent with girls, I am told we will find almost half of these cases involve boys.
We are talking about children younger than 18 years old. This age should not be a magic number, after which we are no longer concerned about them. If abuse started before or after their 18th birthday, we should be able to offer help into their mid 20’s.
We all need to understand that no matter what we are able to do in Tillamook County to support our youth, we will not be able to help every child. These kids must want to find a way out and herein lies a big part of the problem. Many of these children are coerced in their early teens and this is the only lifestyle they are familiar with. This is all just heart breaking, however, I do think we can, as a community, coordinate a response to this issue.
To gain further insight into what was occurring in Tillamook County, I called a meeting in late January and was thrilled with the turnout of 35 local people key to finding solutions for Tillamook County, including State agencies such as Department of Justice and Department of Human Services.
This meeting was focused on determining, first of all, if Tillamook County really had this problem, and if so, finding solutions that could be rolled out as quickly as possible. I was elated with the conversation and focus of all attendees. We agreed we indeed have a serious problem.
I am especially thankful for the participation of Amanda Swanson, State Trafficking Coordinator, Oregon Department of Justice. She was instrumental is starting Tillamook County down the path towards solutions.
There are certain behaviors exhibited by kids involved with this problem, and DOJ offers free training classes to law enforcement, schools, health care providers and other organizations to assist in early identification of these kids. Early intervention is key to helping break this cycle for our children. This initial training has already been scheduled for Tillamook County.
Ms. Swanson also identified grant opportunities for funding a task force coordinator and potential secondary grant funding for an advocate to work directly with the kids. We are now in the process of putting together a Tillamook County Task Force to coordinate grant funding opportunities and provide direction as we move forward with coordinating a response to this problem.
This is a heart wrenching discussion to have in Tillamook County, but we must not look the other way. Understand that our community is far from unique in Oregon or anywhere in the United States or the world. There are many places where this discussion is simply not occurring because of the difficulty of this topic.
I also want you to know that I just completed a session of Van Moe’s “Let’s Talk” program where one of the topics I discussed was this issue of CSEC. I am told that this episode will be live on as this editorial piece is being published.
I want to thank all of those in attendance at our January meeting for having the courage to be there and openly discuss these difficult issues in Tillamook County. I feel strongly that we are on the path towards finding the solutions we need.