Nearly four years ago, Danica Childs disappeared at age 17. Her last known whereabouts: a Kent motel associated with drugs and prostitution.
Dianne Zoro and her children lived in an apartment near 272nd Street and Pacific Highway South — a Federal Way intersection notorious for prostitution activity. Months before vanishing, Danica began dating a man she met on the bus. He was rumored to be a pimp, Zoro learned, and Danica was starting to hang out with “the wrong people.”
In hindsight, that was yet another red flag from her at-risk daughter that Zoro wishes she would have taken more seriously.
Danica had no history of running away. Despite a few behavioral issues, she seemed to be on the right track with high school graduation on the horizon, Zoro said. Shortly before disappearing, Danica was staying out all night.
One day, Zoro and Danica’s friends knew something was wrong. Danica could not be reached and had not called any close friends or family. No one knew her whereabouts. Her purse, coat and phone were found at the Sunset Motel in Kent in December 2007. After listening to voicemail messages on Danica’s phone, Zoro discovered her daughter had been working as a prostitute. Hearing those sexually graphic messages from clients, known as “johns,” was gut-wrenching, she said.
Zoro remains hopeful her daughter will eventually come home to Federal Way. When putting all the pieces together, Zoro believes Danica may have been kidnapped and sold against her will.
“I still believe she’s alive and out there somewhere,” Zoro said. “It gets harder the more time that goes by.”
The past four years have yielded a few dead-end tips, she said. Zoro and volunteers posted fliers across the city and area. Police databases have shown no arrests for Danica, whose fingerprints are on file. No calls were made on her cellphone since its discovery at the Kent motel.
One anonymous caller from South Carolina claimed to know Danica’s location, but nothing came of the tip. The most recent lead came from California this fall after a woman involved in prostitution was found to have an Auburn-based cellphone number.
Authorities once contacted Zoro because a body discovered near Ft. Lewis in Pierce County happened to fit Danica’s profile.
“When I hear about a body of a dead girl, I think about it,” Zoro said. “It’s upsetting to hear from law enforcement that it fits the description.”
Knowing what she knows now, Zoro is even more protective of her other daughters and keeps close tabs on them. She also joined a new Federal Way community action team that’s dedicated to stopping human trafficking and related activities in the Federal Way area. The team is focused on education and assisting law enforcement.
“I’ve wanted to do something about this for a long time,” Zoro said. “Parents need to know it’s basically in every middle school and every high school in Federal Way. … Until it happens to you, you don’t want to believe it.”
The action team is a partnership between Washington Engage, an anti-human trafficking organization, and Women of Vision, a volunteer ministry of Federal Way-based World Vision. Washington Engage is working to establish similar action teams across the state.
A leading expert in human trafficking is Melissa Farley, Ph.D., of Prostitution Research and Education, which is a non-profit organization in San Francisco.
In a 2008 report, Farley concludes that “strongly criminalizing johns is the most effective legal approach” to reducing violence and exploitation against prostitutes. Among other findings in the report:
• Prostitution has moved from the street to the Internet. It is advertised on websites like Craigslist and Backpage. Advertising is also available in phone directories and newspapers. Street prostitution represents a small percentage of prostitution.
• Most prostitution and human trafficking is controlled by organized criminals. Massage parlors often serve as fronts for brothels. A law in Nassau County, N.Y., has allowed police to target landlords who house pimps and traffickers under the guise of massage parlors. Those property owners were subject to charges over code violations and fraudulent lease agreements — which ultimately pressured the property owners to evict law-breaking tenants.
• Sweden adopted a law in 1999 that criminalized those who create and profit from prostitution. This law particularly targets pimps, traffickers and men who buy sex. Since the law went into effect, the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare has reported a 50 percent decrease in the number of women in prostitution, and a 75 percent decrease in the number of johns. The law is also credited for reducing organized crime networks in Sweden.
Washington is among the leading states in battling human trafficking.
The state Legislature has been chipping away at human trafficking since 2002, with the creation of a task force and the “Mail Order Bride Act.” In 2003, Washington became the first state to criminalize human trafficking. Since then, a series of laws have addressed restrictions on sex tourism, along with confidentiality and benefits for victims. In 2012, the Legislature will attempt to restrict advertisements for escort services related to underage victims.
Human trafficking is prevalent in Washington because of the state’s ports. The Seattle area ranks among the top in the world for sexual exploitation of minors, according to Genesis Project, an organization dedicated to protecting young women victimized by human trafficking.
Multiple sources cite human trafficking in the top three illegal money-making activities, which include drug smuggling and firearms sales.
Numbers and more
• According to Polaris Project, between 100,000 and 300,000 children are prostituted in the U.S.
• In November 2010, the FBI rescued 69 child prostitutes in 40 U.S. cities; 23 of those children were in the Puget Sound region, according to Washington Engage.
• To learn more about the Federal Way community action team, contact Karen Marion at firstname.lastname@example.org or (253) 815-2477.