HOLDING LOCAL STRIP CLUBS ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR ROLES IN ENABLING PORTLAND’S CHILD SEX-TRAFFICKING PROBLEM

Portland sex trafficking casesLaw enforcement officials in Portland and surrounding areas recently began cracking-down on local strip clubs and their managers involved with the sexual prostitution and abuse of young girls. Several people have been criminally charged for their roles in pimping and abusing young girls at local strip clubs. However, in addition to holding the abusers and associates of the strip clubs criminally liable, the clubs and their owners must also be held accountable in our civil justice system to send a message that it is not ok for businesses to profit from the sexual exploitation of minors.

One recent case involved Stars Cabaret, a local strip club in Beaverton, Oregon. According to a series of articles in The Oregonian, two men were sentenced to prison for their involvement in pimping a young 13-year-old girl at Stars and sexually abusing her.
Victor Moreno-Hernandez met the girl after she ran away from her Portland home; he then befriended her and began sexually abusing her. He brought her to Stars Cabaret manager Steven Toth, who forced her to engage in sexual acts with Cabaret customers. Toth even went so far as to guard the door to the back room while the sexual abuse was occurring. Moreno-Hernandez and Toth shared the profits from their exploitation of the young girl. Moreno-Hernandez and Toth will serve 30 years and 15 years respectively behind bars for their crimes.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. During the Washington County police’s investigation into the incident at Stars, they discovered that behind-doors prostitution was common at Stars. According to The Oregonian, another 15-year-old girl was stripping at Stars and other strip clubs in Beaverton and Portland, and her pimp was also charged in that case. And these incidents are not isolated to female children. Washington County Prosecutor Kevin Barton noted that police recently found two boys who were having sex with men at a Beaverton porn store called DK Wilds, about a mile from Stars Cabaret. Several men were convicted.

A 2010 article published by the Washington Times notes that sex trafficking of minor children in the Portland area is not a new problem. “State police report encountering three to five trafficking victims a week. Although the Sexual Assault Resource Center, an advocacy group that offers services to Portland-area victims, estimates that it handled 75 cases in 2009, it also says that for every girl in its system 10 more are still being exploited. ‘I just believe with my whole heart that people across the community would be appalled if they knew what was going on,’ said Sgt. Mike Geiger, who heads Portland’s sexual assault detail.” I recently worked with Vancouver, Washington-based nonprofit Shared Hope International to file an amicus brief in the sentencing of Ben Riggs, a man that transported a minor girl from Vancouver to Oregon City to engage in sex with her. The brief and Shared Hope’s website are excellent resources for learning more about this silent epidemic.

Interestingly, in the Stars Cabaret case involving the 13-year-old girl, Washington County Judge Kohl also imposed a $150,000 fine on Toth, Stars Cabaret’s manager. In imposing the fine, Judge Kohl noted, “This is only appropriate in this circumstance . . . . There is a connection between your work there at Stars Cabaret and what you did to this young 13-year-old child victim. . . . Stars Cabaret was receiving some type of economic benefits from your activity here.” Toth’s attorney objected to the fine, saying there was no sign of economic damages to the girl. But Judge Kohl stood his ground: “”Well, take a young girl who’s forced to strip naked in a club for men — Mr. Toth did not even check her ID — and then to have her perform sex acts on men in the back room and subject herself to those type of physical conditions, . . . I think $150,000 is just a drop in the bucket to what she would be entitled to if someone were to file a lawsuit.”

And Judge Kohl is absolutely right. Strip clubs involved in child prostitution and child sexual abuse must be held civilly liable as well. When employees and owners use their positions for the strip club to enable child exploitation, their horrendous actions economically benefit the business. While certain employees may be criminally prosecuted for their actions, the business will likely simply go on operating with new employees and new managers. However, monetary damages being awarded against these businesses in a civil jury trial can have a strong deterrent effect, in that they will send a message to similar businesses that these business and their owners cannot simply turn a blind eye to what’s going on behind closed doors. They must be held responsible and cannot be allowed to profit from child sexual abuse. And as local businesses, they have a responsibility to help end, rather than encourage, our child sex-trafficking epidemic.

Dumas Law Group has law offices in Portland, Oregon and serves clients in Oregon, Washington, California, and other states.

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