Janet Runbeck grew up making tombstones. Her family owned a headstone business on South Tacoma Way where everyone pitched in. “I had to go to work at the age of 11, so working was as natural as breathing,” she said. She went on to become a nurse, helping all kinds of people, from injured dirt bikers in rural Cle Elum to war refugees in Thailand. After going back to run her family business for nearly 20 years, she’s now retired and teaches nursing one day a week at University of Washington Tacoma. Runbeck is known around the South Sound for rolling up her sleeves as a dedicated volunteer at several nonprofits. Those are some of the many reasons people nominated her for the South Sound Magazine Citizen of the Year award. Her relentless work to protect children and women from sex trafficking is why she was chosen for the honor.
She works with several local sex trafficking organizations that focus on prevention. As a nurse practitioner, she teaches clinicians the health signs of a patient who may be a victim. Her commitment to diving deep into such a dark and disturbing subject is not only critical to community safety, but also heroic. Runbeck will receive the award at The Best ozf the South Sound celebration at the end of May. We had a chance to connect and ask her more about her volunteer efforts and how she thinks human and sex trafficking is affecting us locally.
What exactly is human trafficking?
Human trafficking is using force or coercion to gain somebody else’s labor. It’s a business. So human trafficking is selling the labor or sex acts of another party.
Why is this area a hot spot?
There are three hot spots in the country: the I-5 corridor, Los Angeles and New York. They think that we have one of the highest, if not the highest rates of trafficking, because we have a wealthier base of men who can afford it. We’ve got tech-savvy (men). These men can go to the web … and buy a girl right now and get her within 15 minutes. Or they can go to the dark web, which I don’t know how to do, and get anything they want.
We are on a corridor. The girls that are actually ensnared into the life go from here to Las Vegas to California, back up here.
Are the girls from other countries?
The overwhelming majority of traffic victims locally are domestic.
So are pimps walking around Tacoma?
Pimps look for girls who are by themselves, looking down, not full of confidence. If somebody walks up and they say, “Gosh you look cute,” and she just shrugs him off, he just goes on to the next one.
How do they go from an average teenage girl at the mall to a sex trafficking victim?
The typical way that a pimp works — the boyfriend pimp — they actually tell the girl that she is beautiful, and here’s a new dress and here’s a new purse. And after a while, after she’s fallen for all this (he might say), “Oh by the way, I’m short on cash.”
What about online?
Cybersafety is huge. Parents (need to) be very aware of cybersafety. And there are all kinds of great stuff. All they have to do is Google it. … (Internet connections are another common way kids are lured from their homes and then victimized, so the entire family needs to get educated.)
Who else is at risk?
Runaways. Within 72 hours (a high percentage) of runaways in King and Pierce County are (likely) approached by a pimp … And if you’re hungry enough and if the pimp “loves” you …
Do the girls seek help?
Typically, the girls don’t complain because they feel like they “chose” the life. And by the time they’ve been so abused both by the johns and their boyfriends, they feel they are not worthy of help. Typically, they will not come forward. And when they do, they kind of dart in and out.
How do you see the issue from a public health perspective?
(A victim is) going to have a whole slew of stress-related mental health conditions and physical conditions that are (likely) going to plague her for the rest of her life. And then she’s going to be a mom. Right? And then how healthy are those kids going to be? It’s an amazingly ugly cycle.
What’s the city doing about this?
The City of Tacoma has now issued a grant, and we have our first-ever crime victim advocate with the Pierce County Sexual Assault Center. And anyone can call 24/7 (to make a report call 253.474.7273).
Why do you volunteer to spread awareness about sex trafficking?
Because I was never forced to do it! I was lucky enough to not have to do it. In all good conscience, how can you not, knowing that it’s going on?
How to get involved
The Pierce County Sexual Assault Center has a local sex trafficking victim advocate program. They also have a specific program called YES to Hope to help children victims of trafficking. Find out more online. Pierce County Coalition Against Trafficking is a local volunteer group that Runbeck is a part of. Find more information at facebook.com/PierceCountyCAT. There is also a parent group called Washington Engage.