Emily Larson considered lots of requests for her first proclamation as Duluth's mayor, but she chose one: to recognize January as Duluth Trafficking Awareness Month during a fourth annual gathering at Trepanier Hall downtown.
"I've attended every year," said Larson, who was sworn in as mayor on Monday. "I feel it's important for us as a community to name this issue - sexual exploitation, human trafficking, sex trafficking. These are the realities facing our beautiful children."
To hear the other assembled speakers at the event tell it, Minnesota's 2011 Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Law that treats children swept up in sex trafficking as victims and not criminals was just the beginning.
Children between the ages of 11 and 15, along with Native American women, continue to profile locally as the populations most vulnerable to human trafficking.
In speaking with local leaders about trafficking in the city, the News Tribune learned that new measures have been underway in the past year to continue to address the problem.
The Duluth Police Department, through grant funding, just added an additional officer to its juvenile unit. The grant was awarded because the department was able to illustrate human trafficking was a problem in the city.
"It's absolutely happening," said Kim Wick, the department's investigator for human trafficking, missing persons and runaways. "To get the grant we had to prove we had an issue and show we have a large victim base or pool of potential victims."
The new officer works alongside Wick and allows the police to make greater contact and have better follow-up with the chronic runaways who are among the people most at-risk for sexual exploitation.
"Things are so complicated for the victim survivor," Wick said. "It's not unusual for them to get sucked back into it. Anytime we make contact with a victim survivor and start to build a relationship I count that as a win."
Law enforcement, social service agencies and other partners are working together better than ever to confront the issue, Wick said. Their growing collective awareness about human trafficking has allowed agencies to work together to connect victims to the right services that help support getting them out of the sex trade.
"We're starting to see that it's not just pockets within the system," Wick said, "but that it's moving forward system-wide when it comes to identifying and dealing with it."
Wick said there continues to be a shortage of transitional housing for young victims that provides the safety of adult supervision to go with the skill-building necessary to teach victims about a life outside of the sex trade. While acknowledging options like Life House's new Sol House, Wick said there is simply not enough.
"When you look at the broad picture," she said, "we could probably fill an apartment building."
In speaking at the Trepanier Hall gathering, Sixth District Judge Sally Tarnowski identified another battlefront in the fight to end sex trafficking in Duluth.
"It is now time for us to shine a light on demand - the users," Tarnowski said.
To that end, Men As Peacemakers in downtown Duluth has spent the past year developing a marketing campaign it will roll out later this year titled, "Don't Buy It."
"It's about understanding the link between pornography, strip clubs and sex trafficking," said Mallory Thorne, anti-sex trafficking coordinator for Men As Peacemakers.
As the primary purchasers of commercially sexually exploited women, men are a necessary part of any solutions, said program director Sarah Curtiss of Men As Peacemakers.
"If we want to make meaningful change we need to engage the entire community to become part of the process," Curtiss said. "Not all men purchase. There are men who care about people being hurt and victimized."
Its organizers hope the "Don't Buy It" campaign will allow men to talk openly about trafficking. In addition to an Internet component, the "Don't Buy It" campaign will come with a curriculum for use by small groups.
"You don't have to be a loud activist on the front lines," Thorne said. "A person can make small changes in circles at their job, their place of worship and with their families, so the issue is not hidden or in the shadows."