Our Voice: Tri-Citians inspirational in battle against underage sex trafficking

It reminds us what a great place it is that we call home when we see Tri-Citians stepping forward to right wrongs.

It's especially admirable when the target is the kind of challenge that has plagued the world for centuries, and our community jumps right in with the optimism that a difference can be made.

In this case, the Tri-Cities Coalition for Human Trafficking is being trained to use a new statewide protocol to help achieve a level of consistency when dealing with underage victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

The procedures are the first of their kind in the nation, and the Tri-Cities is one of five cities and counties in our state where task forces are being trained in the techniques.

The idea is to provide resources to minors who have been sexually exploited. The protocol is being hailed as a comprehensive blueprint to standardize how victims are treated and increase understanding of the crime.

In developing the program, the Center for Children & Youth Justice held a series of summits across the state to gather information and ideas. The concept also garners credibility because its development was led by retired state Supreme Court Justice Bobbe J. Bridge, who heads the youth justice organization.

One of the primary goals is to train first responders on how to handle the young victims. Teaching them how to detect the problem, assist with getting them resources and move the victims to a safe place is part of the instruction.

"In the past, victims have been treated as criminals," said Terri Kimball of the Center for Children & Youth Justice

The training also is a good way for like-minded groups around the state to share resources and information.

The Tri-Cities Coalition for Human Trafficking was formed in September, led by Tri-City Soroptomist Clubs, and includes police agencies, prosecutors and advocates. The group had its first training on the new protocol earlier this month.

"One of the hard parts about human trafficking is that there aren't any hard numbers," said Tirsa Butler, co-chairwoman of the Tri-City group. "What we do know is that it is here."

And that's the point. Underage sex trafficking doesn't just happen in other places. It happens in the Tri-Cities, too.

Here, officials are most likely to find sex trafficking by gangs, inside families and with girls forced into prostitution by pimps.

Human trafficking is a global issue, but it's clearly a local one as well. We've all read horror stories about people being trafficked.

As former state senator and now Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin said last fall, "The greatest enemy in combating modern day slavery is ignorance."

We appreciate that a group of folks in our community is well aware that there is a problem and is taking an active role in its resolution. We continue to be impressed by the capacity of our citizens to get involved in even the most daunting challenges.

We are thankful for the Tri-Cities Coalition for Human Trafficking and our state's aggressive tack in combating such horrific crimes while providing the necessary training for our responders to help give victims the care and respect they deserve.