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Finding answers to Snohomish County’s sexual slavery problem

Paula Newman-Skomski is a forensic nurse in Snohomish County who is opening Peoria Home, a place for women to go to escape sexual slavery. (KIRO Radio/Colleen O'Brien)
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It seems there are shelters for for a variety of causes, but what’s missing for many women is a shelter to escape sexual slavery. That’s about to change for Snohomish County because of a very special and rare nurse in Everett.

This is a continuation of my series of sexual slavery in Snohomish county. Last week, I introduced you to Charlotte. She is a victim of sexual slavery. She’s also someone who did finally escape her pimp and is on the road to recovery.

“I have never seen nothing worse than I have in Snohomish County,” Charlotte said. “It’s all over. It’s crazy the more I get down the line [of recovery] I don’t see it as much but when I was down there in the dark… it’s constant.”

Charlotte established, for me, that Snohomish County isn’t immune to what’s normally identified as a “big city” problem. So how does it exist and persist in the suburbs? That’s my big question.

In addition to sharing how pimps lure girls and keep them, she said that even if you were to escape sexual slavery, it’s hard to stay out for good because there’s virtually no place to go. It’s worse for adult women. Across the country, I’ve learned, there are maybe 200 beds available specifically for the recovery needs of a former sexual slave.

I met a woman, through Charlotte, who wants to change that for Snohomish County. She happens to be a very special and rare nurse in our state &#8212 forensic nurse Paula Newman-Skomski.

Newman-Skomski works at Everett’s Dawson Place, where children go if they’re being sexually abused. It’s a job you and I probably can’t handle, but she’s motivated by her own past of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. Years later, everyone’s worst nightmare as a parent came true &#8212 her daughter was kidnapped.

“It was up in Smokey Point. She was on her bike with a 9-year-old neighbor girl about a block and half from home,” Newman-Skomski said. “[It was] broad daylight at like 5:30 – 6 o’clock in the evening. He approached them, was asking them directions, the 9-year-old who was a real…just a chatter bug, was talking to him and my daughter was actually backing away from him and he got out of his vehicle and took her … And the 9-year-old went to nearby apartments and just started pounding on doors until somebody answered and called 9-1-1 for her.”

Her daughter was held for four hours.

Her kidnapper served time. Unfortunately for Newman-Skomski and her daughter, back then there were really no resources for a 12-year-old victim of this type of crime, she said. “Back then” was actually just 1995.

“She didn’t get a complete medical exam, and we had to run all over the place looking for the prosecutor’s office, and this office, and that office and I had to find my own counseling for her,” Newman-Skomski said.

That’s why Newman-Skomski became a forensic nurse. That means she’s specially trained to do things like administer rape kits and, of course, advocate for victims of sexual abuse and slavery. Because 20 years later, a safe place to go for this vulnerable population still isn’t guaranteed.

“The average age of entry for trafficking is 13. Grooming often starts before that, but that’s the average age into trafficking and prostitution,” Newman-Skomski said. “They’re any girl in your community. Just being a teenager puts girls at risk for being manipulated and coerced into trafficking by pimps. So, it’s not girls being brought into this country, which is often what people think. It’s our own homegrown girls that fall prey to manipulators.”

I’ll reiterate here that I grew up in Snohomish County. I was born and raised in Marysville. So, the idea that this is going on right under our noses &#8212 undetected by most &#8212 is still a wonder to me. So I asked Newman-Skomski, how do you spot sexual slavery?

“It’s difficult,” she said. “A lot of times you won’t see the girls with their actual pimps or controllers. You might see them with other girls and you’re not going to question that. I think if you’re at a hotel and you see a young girls with a guy that is much older than her, how many people are going to walk up and say ‘Is this your dad? Are you safe?’ And we’re not going to question that. And by questioning it, you can actually put her at risk for being harmed.”

It sounds like an impossible situation. But, when you hear 13-year-olds are being turned into sexual slaves, it’s natural to wonder “what can I do?”

Paula is the one to ask. She formed a sex trafficking task force in Snohomish County and got law enforcement involved.

“One of the detectives at the Everett Police Department came to us here at [Dawson Place] and said, ‘We have a problem in the county that we’re arresting girls for prostitution who are not old enough to legally consent to having sex. How can we reach out to them? What can we do for them? This is a problem,'” Newman-Skomski recalled.

She responded, “I’ll tell you what to do. Help me open a recovery center for women who escape sexual slavery.”

“They need a place to go &#8212 a safe place to go. One of the biggest needs for women is safe housing and once they get in a safe place to live, they need, usually, drug or alcohol treatment and rehabilitation,” Newman-Skomski said. “They need education and job training skills because if you’ve been a prostitute for multiple years, what do you have to put on a resume to try and get another job?”

Paula will call her new shelter “Peoria Home” because names like “Stepping Stone” and “A New Leaf” are played out, she says. Peoria goes much deeper.

“October of 1854, President Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in Peoria, Illinois that was the turning point for his political career and it was also the beginning of the Emancipation Proclamation to end slavery as we knew it at that time. So, for us, Peoria is an indication of a turning point in a woman’s life and their beginning to freedom from being enslaved by the sex trade,” Newman-Skomski said.

I had one more question for Paula because in researching sexual slavery, it seems you always come upon the prostitution cases out of motels and hotels. It’d be too stereotypical for my taste if it weren’t so true. So I asked her why motel and hotel owners aren’t held more accountable for what’s going on in their rooms?

“That’s a hard question to answer,” she said. “A lot of times they don’t really recognize what’s going on. The education is getting out there, but it takes a while for people to really wrap their brains around the fact that this is actually happening.”

She’s talking about the education efforts of B.E.S.T. – Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking. Some of the businesses they target for education on sexual slavery are hotels and motels.

Next week, I go into one of the hotels in Snohomish County used by the FBI for sex trafficking stings and talk to a hotel manager who is as dedicated as Charlotte and Paula to ending sexual slavery.

If you would like to help Paula in her efforts to open Peroia Home, the non-profit is hosting the “Harvest of Hope” dance and social on October 17.

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