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Q&A: A WSP sergeant's take on juvenile sex trafficking

The leader of the Washington's Missing & Exploited Children's task force shares his takeaways from the job.
Sgt. Carlos Rodriguez (Photo: Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5)

What does the sex trafficking of minors look like in Washington state?

We asked Carlos Rodriguez, who has led the Washington State Patrol's Missing & Exploited Children Task Force since 2012. His Tacoma-based task force pursues cases involving juvenile sex trafficking, child pornography and the rape and molestation of children across the state.

Since August 2015, Rodriguez and his two detectives have conducted eight undercover sting operations over the course of 43 days. As a result, the group has arrested 115 people suspected of exploiting children and recovered 22 juvenile victims. They also work cases alongside Seattle's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and FBI's Child Exploitation Task Force."People order girls like they order pizza," he said. "You can go online or you can answer an ad or call somebody and then you order somebody up. It shouldn't be that easy. It shouldn't be like (how) you can go buy a car or order a pizza. But it is."

The questions and answers below have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What's the biggest misconception about the sex trafficking of minors?

"The biggest misconception is that it's not happening around here or 'it would never happen to my kid.' Not trying to scare people, but it's everywhere.... It's not just someone else's kid. It's not just a headline. It could be right next door.

The thing that's difficult about it is you don't hear the names, and part of that is to protect the kids....But when you don't hear the names, it just doesn't seem real until it's somebody that you know....I think that's what people need to realize. This is real. It's not just a TV show. It's not just a news story or something that pops up on Facebook....This is happening every day. Right now it's happening. Somebody is being abused right now."

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How old are the sex trafficking victims you've encountered in your job?

"We've seen victims as young as five up to 18. More consistently with the ones I've seen and recovered from hotel rooms or who have run away from their family...that age range has been 12 to 15."

Why are people selling kids?

"I think it's all about money and control. It's a different commodity. When you look at narcotics, for example, I can have some heroin and I can have Ecstasy or pills, methamphetamine, and I can process it, make it and once I sell it, it's gone. It's used up. When you have a child, that's a reusable commodity. I can sell that over and over, and I still have it. I'm not losing anything. So, when you think about it, (the traffickers) don't have to worry about other resources."

How are do traffickers recruit minors?

"First, everyone thinks of runaways. Maybe there are problems at home. Maybe they just got into an argument. They can just run away, and then they are vulnerable. They could run from a bus station. They could go to a mall, and there are people there who look for girls or boys. Or they don't have any food. You know, maybe they need to eat so they will start to do other things. It could be survival sex. It could be (to support) a (drug addiction).

Another way is you have people out there who just are predators. They are looking for this... 'I want to make money and this is how I'm going to do it.' They'll look, and they will find people who they think, 'This is someone I can take advantage of'....They could just shower someone with compliments and then convince them that 'Yes, this person loves me. This is my boyfriend.' And then, the next thing you know (the minor is) in a situation that is just as bad.

Another way is (their trafficker) could be their family (member)....Maybe that family grew up in that, and they felt that it's normal and that's how it is and that's how you survive, and so it just continues. We've had generations of that -- where you have grandma, and then it's mom and then it keeps going.

READ MORE: How sex traffickers target American girls, then profit

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"It could also be someone running away and going to an area that's not great. They trust someone in the area and someone just snatches them up, and says 'No, this is what you're going to do.' It's total force. I've seen that as well."

Why is it so easy for traffickers to prey on someone who is vulnerable?

"(The vulnerable person is) looking to belong. You know, are they missing something at home? What are they missing at home? And they are seeking it somewhere else and then they start to trust these other people. Someone could work at a restaurant as a waitress or waiter, and then someone gives them attention and then the next thing you know, they could be caught up in this."

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Do most Washington pimps and traffickers work independently or do they work for someone else?

"The ones I've dealt with have been independent."

Do the traffickers typically stay in one area or are they crossing state lines when they have these children?

"It's all over the board. I mean, people will go to different areas. They will travel around and move around from town to town or state to state (with these kids). My experience with the really young ones that I've seen have seen -- it's been local."

Are minors arrested for prostitution?

"Here in Washington, I have not witnessed that. Everywhere that we have been, minors -- the people who are being trafficked -- are not seen as criminals. Because generally, they don't have a choice. I mean, it's different in each area on how to handle that but our major focus when we work these kind of operations is (that) we want to get them services. We want to get them out of that lifestyle. Unfortunately, sometimes you do these (operations) and you see the same person, you know, two or three times. Sometimes they get out. Sometimes they don't. A lot of times they don't. But it's really hard because you can't force somebody to get out. I mean, there isn't anything in place where you force somebody to get out of this lifestyle."

Describe what it's like for you once you recover a child.

"When somebody finally discloses... what happened to them, that's the most horrific thing to listen to -- to hear a child say what has happened to them. You know, (it's something) that should never happen to them. And especially since they don't have a choice in that, that's the worst thing that I can think (of). I mean, it's the worst thing that I've ever heard in my career and in my life....I want to get that out of my mind (but) I don't think I ever could. And part of me wants it to go away, but the other part (of me), I want to remember that 'cause it makes you remember why we're doing this."

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What happens after you recover a minor trafficking victim?

"Generally, when we have a minor victim who is being trafficked by a pimp, they are brought out, they are provided services and they talk to somebody who is not a law enforcement officer. They talk about services -- if they want services, if they want some type of help. I've been doing this five years, and I can think of one juvenile who I've come into contact with that actually got out of the life in five years. That's it."

Why is it so hard to pull these juveniles from 'the life' of prostitution?

"Well, I think it depends. It goes back to -- for some of them -- why are they in the life in the first place, you know? ... a horrible family life. They had a family that was heavily involved in crime.... They wanted to get away from it, (so they) went to somebody else who they believed was their savior and would save them.

It gets to a certain point where you remove them from the atmosphere, but then they go into some type of care or they go back -- maybe they go back home. Once you do that, I mean, you can't put them in jail. You can't put them in prison. They still can make choices, and if they are still around those influences, they can go back to it. Or if they still think, 'Yeah, this is cool.' or 'This person really cares about me.'"

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Are boys victims of sex trafficking, too?

"Oh, yes.... You hear more about girls more often because boys don't -- from my experience -- they don't disclose what happens as much. They don't come forward as often."

Why does your task force place a big emphasis on the people who are buying sex?

"If you don't go after the people who are purchasing it, then you're never going to get rid of the people who are providing it. There has to be a need. I mean, if I was selling VCRs or owned a video rental place for VHS tapes, I'd go out of business 'cause there's no need for it anymore. You need to make this where this isn't something that people want. The consequences need to be very high."

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Who are the people who purchase a child for sex?

"They are your neighbors. They are not just, you know, the creepy guy who's at the park. It's everywhere. The age spectrum that we've (seen) as far as people wanting it... I think the youngest was 19 or 20? And the oldest was in his 60s. And it's not just males. It's a smaller amount of females, but we've arrested three females that have done this. Some of them wanting the children, and then another one who was actually providing (the child)."

If You Need Help

The national hotline for human trafficking victims is 888-373-7888. Call this number to report a tip or to request services.

We've also compiled a list of Washington groups that provide support to prostitution survivors and sex trafficking victims as they recover from their experiences.

About This Story

This story is affiliated with Selling Girls, a nine-month nationwide investigation into sex trafficking. TEGNA, our parent company, launched the project at each of our 46 stations across the country to help hundreds of thousands of American kids who are lured into a life they didn't choose. To watch the six-part series and to follow KING 5's ongoing local coverage of sex trafficking in Washington state, click this link.

Contact The Reporter

Taylor Mirfendereski is a multimedia journalist, who focuses on in-depth reports for KING 5's digital platforms. Follow her on Twitter @TaylorMirf and like her on Facebook to keep up with her work. For story ideas, e-mail her at tmirfendereski@king5.com.