Members of a Lane County human trafficking task force (Chuck Nyby, front second from right; Susan Lopez, back second from right) pictured at that an award ceremony on Jan. 10, 2020, where they were recognized for exposing the Mario-Land sex trafficking ring. (Courtesy of Sunny Petit)

Something did not sit well with the Child Welfare Office staff at the Department of Human Services when they noticed parallels between their active cases in the summer of 2018. Their suspicions laid the foundation for an inter-agency task force, which went on to uncover a child sex trafficking ring in Lane County.

The team was among those that Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and DHS Child Welfare program director Rebecca Jones Gaston recognized at an award ceremony on Jan. 10 for helping prevent human trafficking in Oregon, according to a news release from DHS.

Of the 746 reported victims of human trafficking in Oregon from October of 2018 to 2019, 120 of them were from Lane County, the news release said.

“DHS is proud to recognize the efforts of our Lane County and Clackamas Child Welfare awardees for their teamwork and collaboration,” Jones Gaston said in the news release. “Preventing human trafficking is not just one organization’s goal, it takes everyone to work together to make a difference in this issue, which is why the teamwork and passion exhibited by these awardees is so critical."

Child Protective Services supervisors Chuck Nyby and Susan Lopez said in the summer of 2018, they and other DHS workers compared their different cases and found common threads between them of children being exploited. 

Nyby organized a task force of local agencies — from the Lane County Child Welfare Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Lane County Department of Youth Services and the Eugene and Albany Police Departments — to keep track of and investigate those findings.

LCCW’s reports and subsequent police investigation led them to a Lane County-based child sex trafficking ring dubbed “Mario-Land.” Nyby said he was unable to disclose details of the crimes but said, “people were reporting that those kids were experiencing sex trafficking.”

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”

Sex trafficking victims are often found in vulnerable positions — homeless, away from their familiies, or battling addiction — and either manipulated or forced into a lifestyle where they are being exploited, Nyby said.

Lopez said the discovery of the Mario-Land ring, at least locally, was fairly unprecedented. “This is kind of an anomaly,” she said. “It was definitely the first time that we'd ever heard of anything like this happening in our community.”

Nyby and Lopez praised the caseworkers they supervised, who were working directly with the children that were victimized. “A lot of them did, I mean, things that are just amazing,” Nyby said. “They really went above and beyond to help these kids.”

One of the challenges of investigating human trafficking, Nyby and Lopez said, is the stricter burden of proof it takes to arrest or prosecute somebody. While Child Protective Services can take action to protect a child based on their word, Nyby said it “doesn’t equate to prosecution,” and law enforcement must still prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt. 

“They can hold investigations open for years sometimes,” Nyby said.

Two Eugene Police detectives, Curtis Newell and Jed McGuire, were also recognized at the ceremony for their efforts. The pair are typically the ones that investigate local human trafficking cases, and they helped investigate Mario-Land.

Nyby said he and Lopez learned from their own experience that it is difficult to gauge what kind of workforce is needed to investigate human trafficking. 

“This is a difficult population to quantify because we know that there's more of it happening than the victims will talk about,” Nyby said.  “It's a difficult thing to prosecute, because the youth or even adult victims involved are reluctant to come forward for a variety of reasons.”

Nyby said it is not uncommon for people who have been proven victims of human trafficking to deny it completely. 

“There's something about it that makes it really difficult for them to be able to talk about it or to be able to believe that there's help out of it,” he said.

Both said that separating themselves from many of their natural emotions and focusing on their intent is essential to them doing their best work.

“I think that the longer you work here, whether you're involved in sex trafficking or child abuse in general, there's stuff that breaks your heart,” he added. “So I have to find a way to leave it here to the best of my ability.”

Over the years, Lopez said she has found herself struggling to cope with the “vicarious trauma” from the fact that there are victims and cases of human trafficking that are not reported. 

“You see something that might trigger you and all of the sudden, you just want to scream because of the impotent rage that you have,” she said.“I can't do anything. You know, I know there's a kid somewhere right now who's being abused, and there's nothing I can do.”

DHS says, “If you are concerned that someone you know might be a victim of trafficking, call the Oregon Abuse Hotline – 1-855-503-SAFE (7233).”