From left to right, Hillary Roeder, Wendy Matthews and Arielle Crist make up the core of a team fighting human trafficking in Marion County. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

When a 16-year-old Marion County girl was arrested on delinquency charges, authorities and the judge saw another bad kid facing commitment to the Oregon Youth Authority.

But a handful of Marion County women noticed something was off. They noticed a troubling dynamic between the girl and her supposed victim. Working together, they talked with the girl and discovered the “victim” was in fact helping traffic the girl in the sex trade.

They changed her life. She’s now off the streets and a high school graduate. She’s enrolled in community college, completed drug and alcohol treatment and is helping prosecute the people who put her on the streets.

“For me, that kind of keeps it going,” said Wendy Matthews, a child welfare manager in Salem for the Oregon Department of Human Services. “We can help. Even if right now it’s just this one, we can help. It’s that persistence — it didn’t happen right away with this youth. It was ongoing for months.”

Matthews works as part of a task force that includes the DHS, FBI, the Marion County District Attorney’s Office, local first responders and advocacy organizations. They meet regularly to prevent human trafficking in Marion County. The task force started about two years ago and was anchored by Matthews; DHS child welfare case worker Hillary Roeder; Tiffany Underwood, until recently a Marion County deputy district attorney; and Arielle Crist, an occupational therapist at A Village For One, which works with children who have been sexually exploited.

Hillary Roeder, a DHS caseworker, said her job leads her to wherever endangered youth are. Oftentimes, they are unsafe environments, but she said you don't find these kids in their homes. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

The four work together to keep tabs on known sex trafficking victims. They contact the victims anywhere from a homeless camp to juvenile lockup to try and help them get off the streets.

They are being recognized for their efforts Friday by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum at an awards ceremony Friday, Jan. 11 — National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

The women were nominated by Cassie Trahan, the executive director of A Village For One.

Trahan said despite the fight against human trafficking being fairly new in Marion County, these women achieved remarkable success.

“They do it with such empathy. They do it with creativity. They do it really with relentless belief in these kids before they can believe in themselves, and they often take a parental role with these kids,” Trahan said.

Underwood recently left Marion County to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona, but another local prosecutor will step into her role. When asked about the award, she was sheepish, saying she doesn’t do it for the recognition.

She said she worked with state caseworkers throughout her career, but Roeder and Matthews are different. They were more dedicated and curious than she’d seen before, and unafraid to try new approaches.

“Just really good communication,” Underwood said of the group’s success. “We have a shared goal, everyone understands what their role is in getting to that goal. There is just sort of that combined energy.”

Trahan said Underwood, too, was unique. She said Underwood was accessible, something not always the case with a busy prosecutor.

The case with the 16-year-old was the first the four teamed up on.

Arielle Crist is an occupational therapist for A Village For One. "The biggest quality that's important to this community is consistance," she said. "Most of the youth we've worked with have seen hundreds of different services providers, and people come in and out of their lives."

“Say our team didn’t exist. If it were just people who had no knowledge of exploitation or sex trafficking, looking at the case, they would see her as the criminal and she would be in a correctional facility right now,” Crist said.

Some think of trafficking as kids brought in from outside of the country and forced into the sex trade, but this group works off a much broader definition. Victims can be, and often are, moved from city to city or even around the country. But they can also stay in one location, Trahan said. Sex trafficking is when someone is coerced into having sex for money or other things of value, she said.

The women look for signals about such victims — drug use, multiple cell phones, having freshly done nails. But that’s the easy part. Often, the girls don’t even realize they’re being trafficked.

“Do not use that word,” Crist said. “I don’t think most people who’re being trafficked know that trafficking is a thing.”

Matthews recounted their work with a girl who was pressed into the sex trade by age 11.

She had done just about every drug in existence, Matthews said. Someone else trying to help her had asked her if she was being trafficked and the girl immediately shut down, Matthews said.

When the Marion County team started working with her, she wasn’t receptive. She eventually formed a bond with Roeder, who asked her how she afforded drugs. Roeder was persistent, and the last time the girl got locked up in juvenile detention, she started talking with her about how exchanging sex for a place to stay or other goods is exploitation. She had a breakthrough with the girl, who started to realize she was being manipulated.

“We’re almost at a good place with her,” Matthews said.

It’s that dedication that prompted Trahan to nominate the women, all of whom shy away from the recognition. They see the efforts, such as Roeder combing homeless camps at night looking for a youth she recognizes, as part of the job.

“These kids need somebody that’s going to go beyond knocking on someone’s door,” Roeder said. “Because that’s not where they are going to be."

Here's the list of those being recognized Friday:

Tiffany Underwood, Marion County District Attorney’s Office; Hillary Roeder, Oregon Department of Human Services-Child Welfare; Wendy Matthews, Oregon Department of Human Services-Child Welfare; Arielle Crist, A Village for One; Rusty Amos, Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office; Angela Hollan , Portland City Government; Rebecca Lusk, Oregon Department of Human Services; Robin Miller, Janus Youth Programs; Melissa Parker, J Bar J Youth Services.

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. 

A note from our editor: Thank you for reading another example of our local journalism. This kind of work takes paid professionals and we rely on subscribers to support this work. If you haven't yet signed on as a Salem Reporter subscriber, please ensure you get more of these kinds of stories with your subscription: Click HEREThank you. -- Les Zaitz, editor