Access Freedom is a prevention-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, dedicated to outreach, providing informed awareness and responding to the commercial sexual exploitation of children/youth within Whatcom County.
Because we believe strongly in the mission of the Center for Children and Youth Justice (ccyj.org), we have collaborated with them and others on the development of the model protocol in responding to the commercial sexual exploitation of children in Washington State.
The vision of Access Freedom is to strengthen the response of the identification and recovery of commercially sexually exploited youth in Whatcom County by:
Access Freedom serves on this committee, which was created by the Legislature in 2013 through Senate Bill 5308. The Commercially Sexually Exploited Children Statewide Coordinating Committee addresses increasing protections for exploited youth by examining local and regional practices and incidence data and making recommendations on statewide laws and practices.
Committee members include representatives from the Attorney Generalâs Office, the Legislature, state and local agencies, criminal justice entities and advocacy organizations.
Under current Washington state law, the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is a crime in which a youth age 17 years or younger is recruited, solicited, coerced and/or forced to engage in the exchange of sexual acts in return for money, basic needs or other material items. These acts may include direct sexual contact, pornography, stripping or other sexualized behaviors performed for the gratification of others.
To read more on the overview of CSEC, see pages 16-17 of the protocol.
Effective response must be based on an understanding of the community and local surroundings. Socio-economic circumstances, ethnic heritage and generational history all make up the social fabric of the community. Geographic diversity also plays a part in the understanding.
As organized sex trafficking expands rapidly across diverse cultural communities in the United States, Access Freedom is working to understand this problem, quantify it, and develop effective responses; beginning within the community in which it was founded.
While age alone is the single greatest risk factor for being trafficked, other dynamics contribute significantly as well. Traffickers, those who exploit youth for monetary gain, are master manipulators. Multiple studies have found that traffickers deliberately target homeless and/or poverty-impacted youth who are desperate to meet survival needs. What Access Freedom has discovered is that those at greatest risk in Whatcom county are the ethnic and socio-economic minority.
A measure of the growing poverty is the homelessness statistics from Whatcom County schools. The number of homeless children in local schools has grown 59 percent from 2007 to 2011, according to data collected by Whatcom Readiness to Learn. (Some of the increase is due to improvements in identifying homeless students.) The US Census found in 2010 that 15% of Whatcom County lives below the poverty level.
Of the children enrolled in public schools in the county, 43% qualify for free or reduced lunch programs. Ferndale School District is currently at 47% free and reduced; Mt. Baker School District is 49.2%; the Nooksack School District is 57.2%; and Bellingham is significantly lower at 36.3%. These statistics give a glimpse into the financial hardship families currently endure.
Two native populations, the Nooksack and the Lummi, make up roughly 3% of Whatcom county's population. A recent study by the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center (MIWRC) found that "in comparison to other racial and ethnic groups, Native women remain the most frequent victims of physical and sexual violence in the United States and Canada." The Hispanic and Latino population is larger than the Native American, comprising roughly 7.8% of the county population. Based on their location and the percentage of children qualifying for the subsidized lunch programs, it seems that the majority of both these populations live at or below the poverty level.
Another risk to youth is homelessness. Northwest Youth Services states that "each year hundreds of youth run away from home in Whatcom County, for a variety of reasons, and have no safe place to go or family to turn to." Combined with the fact that a runaways are most likely to be approached by a trafficker within the first 48 hours of leaving home, the homeless youth and runaway populations are also put at great risk.
What this information illustrates is the growing need for social service programs to support these specific groups and their families.
Access Freedom driving force is comprised of concerned citizens of Whatcom County who are interested in making a tangible difference for at-risk children and young adults. The Board of Directors are:Jed Brewer, President