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July 26, 2011 at 7:42 PM

UW task force calls attention to human trafficking

Posted by Lynn Thompson

The University of Washington's Task Force on Human Trafficking announced it would hold a news conference Wednesday on the controversy over the Village Voice Media's escort advertising.

On Tuesday, news of the press conference immediately fueled speculation that the group would join Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's call for a boycott by advertisers of the Seattle Weekly, which is owned by Village Voice, whose backpages.com backpage.com has been linked to child prostitution.

But organizers of the UW press conference say that while they appreciate the attention the mayor has brought to the issue of the sexual exploitation of minors, the UW Women's Center and other advocates have been involved for years in the fight to combat human trafficking.

"The purpose of the press conference is to discuss the (Village Voice) issue in the context of what's already being done to stop human trafficking. We will not be taking a position on the Village Voice issue," said Becca Kenna-Schenk, a legislative aide to state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who is a member of the task force.

Kohl-Welles noted that the Legislature has addressed human trafficking and child prostitution for almost a decade, including authorizing the nation's first Task Force Against Trafficking of Persons in 2002.

In the past session, she said, the Legislature passed a bill to allow police to conduct surveillance operations on suspected human-trafficking and child prostitution activities, including undercover recordings, with the consent of the victim. The 2011 Legislature also amended the crime of of human trafficking to include people caught transporting someone intended to be forced into prostitution or manual labor.

While many members of the UW task force have been working on issues of juvenile prostitution for years, Kohl-Welles said it's only recently that "the nexus between juvenile prostitution and human trafficking" has been recognized.

She said she "very much welcomed" the focus put on the issue by McGinn. "He's really gone after it strongly," she said.

On July 8, McGinn ordered the city to suspend its advertising in the Seattle Weekly until the newspapaper developed stronger procedures to ensure it wasn't accepting ads linked to child prostitution. The following week, he asked the newspaper to stop all of its escort ads until it required persons placing escort services ads to appear in person and present photo ID to verify their age.

In a related development, Trevor Neilson, president of Global Philanthropy and adviser to Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Tuesday withdrew his call for a boycott of Weekly advertisers.

Neilson said that in discussion with Village Voice Media over the past week he has "come to believe they are serious about working diligently to prevent their...website from being used by those seeking to exploit children or others."

It was Neilson who first contacted McGinn about the link between backpages.com, the Seattle Weekly, and underaged prostitution.

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