There, but for the Grace of God… Human Trafficking in Tacoma

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in Hard Copy 5. Ordinarily we don’t publish content from our hard copy magazines online, but we felt this was an important story to share.

When you imagine trafficking, you might think of being roofied in a foreign country, waking to find yourself kidnapped with your passport stolen. You might imagine a forced arranged marriage, or fifty Asians crammed into a shipping container. You might think of shackles and locked rooms and nondescript vans hiding men with guns. These scenes are real in many places, but Tacoma’s evils unfold less cinematically.

Sex trafficking is one form of human trafficking. Sex trafficking is essentially someone selling someone else’s sex for their own profit. Pimping. It’s a vast topic with tendrils snaking through government, education, the economy, health care, law enforcement and the court system, and it is so expansive that I’m certain this article will barely scrape the surface. 

I recently sat down with Brenda Boback, Director of the Juvenile Justice Ministry at Tacoma Area Youth For Christ. “I’m no expert!” she began, but she’s been face to face with girls deep in sex trafficking for the last five years. After her first visit to Remann Hall, she lay awake thinking about the conversations she’d had, and knew she wanted to visit again as soon as she could. 

Brenda, and now dozens of other highly trained volunteers, have visited girls plucked from horrific situations. They’re often booked on charges of prostitution, (as Washington will still prosecute a minor for prostitution, even if it was forced,) and they normally spend less than a week in Remann Hall. During those days, Brenda and her team can visit. “Our goal is to love them in the moment. We want to speak truth to them—that they’re valuable. We care about them. You’re not going to change a girl in the moment, but speak truth to combat the lies they’ve been told, and that’s what builds hope.” 

Who are they? The typical* sex trafficking victim in Tacoma is a girl between the ages of 11 and 19. Girls most commonly enter “the life” at age 12. They have no connections to community. They don’t go to school. They have no connection to family or, if they do, it’s often not a good relationship. They’re usually on the streets or staying with friends.

“I see a lot of survival,” Brenda says. They could be your student who’s been MIA since last year, the foster daughter who was too chaotic for your home, the neighbor girl who fell in with a gang. 

“Food, clothing, shelter—all they have to do is hit up a website. They all think nothing is going to happen to them, or they think there’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing.” What she’s talking about are dating sites and social media. “All a girl has to do is say, ‘I need a ride,’ or ‘I need a place to sleep tonight,’ and within seconds, some guy swoops in to offer that to her.” By meeting her immediate needs, a trafficker can gain trust and create the false impression that she owes him.

Traffickers don’t fit a mold, but they are all predators. “I’ve seen boys as young as fourteen all the way up to men in their fifties and sixties. Many learn it from older family members,” Brenda explains to me. Gangs, and more heartbreakingly, the girls’ family members are some of the biggest perpetrators, according to an extensive report on Washington State by Shared Hope International. Girls will often be sold for drugs. Pimping is run like a business, and it’s extremely lucrative. Part of what makes it more profitable than, say, trafficking drugs, is that a girl’s body is reusable. A girl’s earnings go straight into her pimp’s pockets.

Brenda tells me a story about a former trafficker. “He could walk into a McDonald’s and tell a girl in line, ‘Hi. You have pretty eyes,’ and if she turned her face and looked down and was shy, he would pounce, but if the girl looked him in the eye and said ‘thank you’ then he would walk away.” Some guys will even send girl recruits into foster homes and jails to get other girls.

Many obstacles may already be present in a victim’s life—homelessness or running away, being in foster care, looking for love and acceptance, marginalization (being a person of color, identifying as LGBTQ+, experiencing poverty, etc.), and having a prior history of sexual abuse and trauma. One common denominator among victims is low self-esteem. There’s a tolerance for abuse.

“One girl I met came into the detention center on a charge of assault. She was fifteen. Her dad was hitting her and she fought back. It was self defense, but it’s easier to pull the child out than the parent in that situation, so that’s what the police did. So, she was arrested, and she told them her dad was pimping her. It was her word against the family’s and nobody believed her.

“As soon as she got out, she walked up to a cop car and threw a rock through the window just so she would be allowed back in Remann Hall. Her dad had been pimping her out to friends. He would drive her to spend the night with someone different each evening, pick her up and collect money… She had a little sister. That’s why this girl was so afraid to speak up sooner. Her dad said if it wasn’t her, he would use her little sister.”

“Another girl was a freshman in high school, and her pimp—her boyfriend—was a senior. She loved him, and so when he asked her to have sex with someone for a gun, she did it. That’s what started her cycle.”

“One girl was actually very involved in church and youth group and family, but this girl was being trafficked for two years!” Brenda tells me she would visit her grandmother and hang out with the neighborhood kids there. Two brothers lured her and raped her. “They threatened to kill her family and expose ‘what she’d done,’ and she was so afraid to tell anyone. She kept quiet and went back to them again and again. Finally she told her youth leader and they didn’t know what to do.”

Girls will be gang-raped on film and then threatened with exposure. It’s an effective isolation tactic, and the more indebted or dependent on their trafficker a girl is, the fewer options they feel they have. Sometimes girls will be pressured to take drugs, leaving them physically reliant on their abuser.

“One of the first girls I sat down with started sobbing in my arms. Her pimp would take all of her clothes and she was only given her clothes back or given a meal if she made enough money. It was classic grooming at first. She was starved for love, her dad was a drunk, and he would drink and kick her out.” 

Brenda shakes her head in exasperation. “Why was she being held in jail?! She would show me on her legs where she’d been beaten with a TV cord. Trauma from parents. Trauma from her pimp. More trauma from the system. The system is so broken right now.” 

The system is very, very far from perfect. There were 53 charges for human trafficking or commercial exploitation of a child last year (2018) in Tacoma, according to the prosecuting attorney’s office. 189 victims were identified in all of Washington in 2017, but these numbers are almost certainly shy of the actual counts. Should police try to catch the johns? The pimps? Should there be group homes for the girls? Resources and training for officers are sparse, and the need is growing. Collectively, lawmakers are at odds about how to tackle the problem.

There are many people devoted to ending sex trafficking. There are politicians, religious organizations, and nonprofits. “When I started looking into this problem five years ago, STRAPWA was around, and they are a great partner,” says Brenda. Sex Trafficking Response and Awareness Program Washington is a wealth of information and resources for anyone seeking help, or looking to educate themselves or get training about sex trafficking.

She approached Bobby Arkills, her boss and Executive Director at Tacoma YFC, to brainstorm how they could help the situation. At the time, they were reaching around 3,000 at-risk youth, and realized trafficking probably touched many of them. She attended workshops and conferences to listen to former victims and social workers.“Survivors who have gotten out of the life have all told us mentorship. Drop-in centers were places that really made a difference, so we started looking.” The space they found was gifted to them by a similarly-minded organization that had never had the chance to develop it.

The drop-in center YFC created, ANEW, is a safe haven for girls. (They “empower teens to write their story anew.”) The space is tucked away discreetly and, behind their door, girls can rest and sleep, take a shower, hang out in a lounge-type space, take time away in a quiet room, cook and eat in the full-size kitchen, do laundry, shop a donation closet for free clothing, get free bus passes, and attend the occasional workshop—sometimes volunteers will teach cooking classes, music therapy, or art classes. It has the potential to be an overnight crisis intervention center, but lacks the volunteer fleet to make that a reality. Currently, it’s manned by Brenda, one part-time person, and eight volunteers.

It’s been open for two years, and in the first year they served about 100 girls, ages 11-17. At first there was a core group of girls who would visit all the time, and they began to tell others.

Obviously, Youth For Christ is a Christian organization, but their priority is not to convert the girls. Part of what makes their work exceptional is that they’re simply there for the girls, without an agenda.

“Our job is to love and support these girls in the moment and give them rest. We don’t judge who comes to the door—every girl is welcome,” Brenda explains, adding that they train their volunteers extensively, and that if anyone has a problem with a girl being trans or queer or an addict, they’re probably not a good fit for volunteering. However, if the girls want to, they read the Bible together. They pray for the girls if they want it, and they pray for the girls when they’re not together. 

In 2018, ANEW expanded their services for 18 and 19 year olds. Since the girls are considered adults when they turn 18, many options and services evaporate. This age range is the fastest growing group of trafficked and homeless teens.

Imagine coming out of being trafficked with no confidence, no social skills, no education, no family, no work history, and a criminal record. Who is going to hire you? Who would trust you? How would you begin “a normal life”?

YFC realizes it can’t be 100 percent of what girls need, but they want to help fill the gap between “the life” and being a survivor of it. They give rides to probation hearings and counseling appointments. They also try to connect girls to the community through other paths like their 180 Mentoring Program, which pairs them with an adult volunteer who can help them get on their feet. YFC also focuses on prevention by working with at-risk boys and girls all over the city. They help kids with homework, teach life skills like how to get and keep a job, and help prepare them for college.

So, how can you, Tacoman, be a “real life” person to help end sex trafficking? Here’s a list:

Don’t buy girls for sex, and consider what you consume online. Don’t be the “demand” side of this equation.

Don’t pimp.

Volunteer with an organization. Teach kids life skills, teach a class, be a listening ear. Volunteer your skills as a professional. Are you a doctor? A drummer? A dog walker? Great! You can help girls in sex trafficking and kids at risk. Be a community member kids can trust and look up to.

Donate supplies or money. Girls need toiletries (especially diverse hair care products—think of all hair types), period products of all sorts, new underwear and socks, and gently used or new, seasonally appropriate clothes and coats. Brenda said she once got bags and bags of used clothes and could only pass on about a quarter of the pieces to girls because the rest was stained or torn. (When giving used, give your best!)

Educate yourself on sex trafficking and human trafficking in general. It’s a global beast of a problem, but you can be informed about what’s happening in Tacoma. This is barely the tip of the iceberg.

If you’re a business owner, you can employ survivors. If you have the gumption to train a girl with little to no work experience, giving them a job and mentoring them could be one of the biggest factors that keeps them from returning to a life of forced prostitution.

Lastly, report something if it doesn’t seem right. Don’t try to rescue girls yourself because that can put them in more danger. Girls can be confused about what day it is (from working nights and being moved around constantly), they might have really expensive nails and hair but be famished. They might be inappropriately dressed for the situation or the season. They need to do laundry. They have a boyfriend but are reluctant to talk about them. They might have an addiction. They could be loyal to a gang and wear the colors, or have gang tattoos or name tattoos somewhere prominent like their neck or hands. They might have unexplainable injuries in various stages of healing. They might take lots of trips with their boyfriend to California (which is apparently a thing that trafficked Tacoman girls commonly do).

*Globally, statistics tell us that roughly 25-33 percent of trafficking victims are male. As it’s a severely underreported crime to begin with, I have no doubt there are boys and young men being trafficked in Tacoma. Crime data from Tacoma and Pierce County was ungendered, however, and the organizations I contacted focused on female victims.

Tacoma Area Youth For Christ, serving youth as young as 11 during the day

Taking supply and clothing donations, as well as monetary donations. In need of volunteers.

Contact: Brenda Boback, 253-225-8347

The Coffee Oasis/Serra House Shelter, group home for 13-17 year olds

Taking monetary donations, school supplies, clothing, furniture, etc. (Wish lists available! Please contact Claire Barnett: or 253-820-3874)

Contact: 253-328-6127

The Beacon Center, who serve youth as young as 12 during the day and ages 18 and up nightly

Taking clothing donations, non-perishable food donations, and “anything else you can think of.”

On-call phone: 253-677-0102

STRAPWA, resources and information, ongoing education, and drop-in center for youth and adults

Taking clothing donations, hygiene products of all sorts, blankets, and household essentials.

Contact: 253-444-5351 for drop-in center

Rebuilding Hope! Sexual Assault Center of Pierce County

Contact: 24-Hour Crisis, Information & Referral Line: 1-800-756-7273 or (253) 474-7273

National Human Trafficking Hotline

Call 1-888-373-7888 (TTY: 711) / Text 233733

Tacoma Police Non-Emergency Number


Story and illustrations by Nina Hartman.

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