Safety Compass: New nonprofit helps sex trafficking survivors

August 2016 Posted in Community
Safety Compass
Mission: To offer support for
survivors of commercial sexual
exploitation and sex trafficking,
navigating the criminal and social
justice systems in Marion County.

Funding: Safety Compass is supported
by donations. Contributions can be
mailed to PO Box 551, Silverton, OR 97381
To volunteer:
or call 971-235-0021.

By Kristine Thomas

On a daily basis, Esther Nelson is challenged with the task of educating people about the realities of human trafficking and advocating for survivors of this crime.

She has statistics that show victims are recruited from small cities and rural communities to work in larger cities. She can share stories of how victims come from all backgrounds. What they have in common is they are vulnerable.

From her research, as well as personal experience, she knows there are not services to help victims in rural communities.

Nelson is the founder and executive director of Safety Compass, a nonprofit organization based in Silverton.

She started the Facebook page “County Line Safety Compass” after two domestic-related homicides in the summer of 2014. In June, she officially began working on Safety Compass, including formalizing it as a nonprofit with a board of directors. Her vision has grown from a successful grassroots project into a nonprofit organization with a “clear mission and attainable goals.”

Safety Compass’ mission is to offer support for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, navigating the criminal and social justice systems in Marion County.

Nelson has vast experience working with survivors of human trafficking, including a decade as a victims’ advocate for sexual assault survivors.

Previous to her work at Safety Compass, she founded the first advocacy team in the United States to respond in an emergency alongside the FBI,  local law enforcement and child welfare as part of a multi-disciplinary model of intervention for child sex-trafficking victims. She left that position with the goal of stepping away from the work and focusing on being a mom.

But she quickly saw there were gaps in services for runaway and at-risk young people in rural communities such as Silverton and Mount Angel.

“I started this because there weren’t services in Marion County to help people,” Nelson said. “We plan to fill these gaps instead of duplicating services.”

From Jan. 1 to July 1, she has had 1,300 contacts. Contacts could be parents concerned about a runaway child, a victim, law enforcement or teacher. The numbers reflect points of contact, not individuals.

“We have had nine referrals from two police departments in Marion County in the last couple months,” she said. “Nine girls who were involved in commercial sex trafficking.”

Mount Angel Sgt. Jeff Charpilloz has worked with Nelson.

“Esther and Safety Compass’ advocacy for victims’ rights is a great resource for our community and has provided special expertise in specific areas such as commercial human trafficking, which we do not normally deal with,” Charpilloz said.

In a recent case, Charpilloz said, Nelson was referred to the Mount Angel Police Department through the Portland FBI Office to assist with an investigation.

“Her connections and knowledge were of great assistance,” Charpilloz said. “Esther was also able to act as a point of contact for an involved family member and assist them with navigating their way through the investigative and legal process.”

Charpilloz said Safety Compass assisted his department with the monitoring of social media sites.

“Which ultimately lead to the successful and safe location of an at-risk subject  in another state on the East Coast,” Charpilloz said.

Besides helping the survivor, Nelson said her goal is to also assist families coping with a family member being trafficked. Nelson also offers training to law enforcement, community groups and other professionals.

In June, she trained Safety Compass board members and volunteers and all the major crime detectives in Clackamas County on how to recognize and respond to commercial sexual exploitation crimes against children.

“We believe that public education increases awareness, resulting in increased victim identification and intervention outcomes,” Nelson said. “We are committed to collaboration with law enforcement and social services providers, believing collaboration is the most effective method to achieving criminal and social justice.”

Nelson said people are always amazed that traffickers recruit youth from small, seemingly safe communities.

She said it’s important for community members not to judge, but instead to understand it could happen to any family.

“Predators look for kids who are vulnerable,” she said.

The Internet makes it easy for predators to find their target, Nelson added.

What usually happens is the predator or pimp makes the victim believe he is her boyfriend. Through a series of manipulations, he eventually has her running away and “working” for him.

Nelson points out both girls and boys can be lured into the commercial sexual exploitation industry.

“We offer support for any survivor of the sex industry regardless of whether they are still in the life or not, regardless of what type of exploitation they experienced, regardless of their gender identity, race, religion or sexual orientation,” Nelson said.

What Safety Compass does for the survivor, their parents and law enforcement is to provide a way to navigate the system.

When Nelson meets with a survivor, she tells her that she will be there whenever needed, whether it’s today or five years down the road.

“Our goal is to give the survivors the tools to be in control of their life as much as they can,” Nelson said. “What these kids need is support. They need to know there is someone who wants to help them, believes them and listens to them.”

Kelli Russell is the president of the board of directors for Safety Compass. Although she lives in Clackamas County, Russell decided to volunteer to be a board member because she has a strong belief and commitment to the mission of Safety Compass and “the utmost respect” for Nelson.

“Having worked on this issue with Esther in the past, I appreciate her integrity, commitment to the issue, and an understanding of the importance of collaboration with a commitment to doing so,” Russell said.

“Esther has never put her success ahead of doing the right thing and that is something I greatly admire.”

Russell said Safety Compass is needed in Marion County because commercial sexual exploitation is happening here.

“Safety Compass provides culturally competent training, advocacy, and support services to survivors of CSE and their families,” Russell said. “Training is offered to service providers and law enforcement to aid in identifying and responding to the issue locally. Advocacy and support services are provided to survivors and their loved ones.”

Nelson and Russell both emphasized that how commercial sexual exploitation operates and who are pimps is constantly changing. It’s something that can look different county-to-county and urban versus rural.

“Understanding how it exists in your community is essential to creating an informed, effective, and relevant response,” Russell said.

“The expertise and experience working on this issue provided by our executive director is second to none,” Russell said. “Having an organization like Safety Compass locally is a great place to start.”

For Nelson, it’s about increasing public awareness and helping people understand sexual exploitation and sex trafficking isn’t something that happens overseas or in big cities. She added it’s important survivors know they have an advocate.

“Our support is unconditional,” she said. “Our goal is to let people know we genuinely care about them and want to help them navigate their life.”

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