Local View: Chief, mayor have the power to address sex trafficking

From the column: "The only children we can truly save are the ones never abused in the first place."


I am a survivor of human sex trafficking and the creator of a grassroots movement called Shining Through.

The U.S. does not have an equality model like other countries. One problem with human sex trafficking laws here is that safe-harbor laws only apply if you are underage. If you are over 18 and you are blackmailed, kidnapped, or manipulated into human sex trafficking, you may get arrested or be viewed as a voluntary victim. The only thing that changes between the minute of time you are 17 and turn 18 is the law: It can make you a criminal instead of a victim.

Another problem: self-defense laws do not seem to apply to survivors exiting human sex trafficking. If our trafficker tries to physically take us, we seem to have no legal ground to prevent it. The laws in the U.S. seem to favor traffickers and buyers.

Mayor Emily Larson and Police Chief Mike Tusken have the power in Duluth to actually make a difference regarding human sex trafficking. I have written to both of them, telling them how trafficking is not only a threat to adult survivors but to children as well.

If the mayor is worried about money, I share this quote from 15th- and 16th-century English philosopher Francis Bacon: “Money is a great servant but a bad master."


Everyone reading this can also contact government officials to express that we do not want our beautiful city potentially extended to traffickers by allowing cruise ships from all around the world to enter our port.

In my email to Chief Tusken, I urged him to do everything he can to advocate for survivors and victims, even if it wasn’t January, which is Sex Trafficking Awareness Month. I asked him to explain to the mayor how complicated it is to prosecute and investigate human sex-trafficking cases and to tell her of the emotional damages officers can go through when survivors and victims are children.

In my email to Mayor Larson, I wrote, “It is your job as mayor to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.” In Duluth, I said, sex traffickers and buyers feel completely comfortable committing their crimes.

I wrote to her specifically about cruise ships. If traffickers can transport victims at the port authority and on international airport lines, they can transport victims with the purposes of abuse on cruise ships. Cruise ships can open the door to the trafficking of children, whether from Duluth or from around the world. I am very concerned about these ships because of such dangers.

If the city of Duluth provides victims, then buyers from other states and from around the world would have reason to come here. The more buyers Duluth has, the more victims would be needed. “Supply and demand” is basic economics. Traffickers would be forced to find more victims to exploit. They wouldn't get all their victims from the ships. They could start getting them from the community through manipulation tactics.

Cruise ships can be used to send missing kids out of the country, I further said in my email to Mayor Larson. We only look for missing children within our country’s borders. We do not have the authority to negotiate a child's safe return from another country, even if we do somehow know their physical location.

Some people in the world involved in criminal trafficking have diplomatic immunity and cannot be charged for taking adults and children. They do not have to disclose information about their crimes committed internationally.

I told the mayor about an uncomfortable conversation I had with one of her assistants. I tried my best as a survivor to explain why allowing cruise ships to come to Duluth could add to what I see as an already-growing sex-trafficking problem. Unfortunately, I felt my concerns fell on deaf ears.


“I am hoping that you can personally reach out to any and all contacts, groups, (and) community members that you know (to) be the voice that saves a child's life, safety, and sanity,” I wrote in my email.

The only children we can truly save are the ones never abused in the first place.

This is our city. “We the people" should have the power to say what goes on here.

Few are suspicious of adults with children because they assume the adult is a parent or guardian and perhaps they are on vacation.

One of the places I was trafficked as a child was the public library in downtown Milwaukee where I grew up.

I wrote to Mayor Larson that my personal impression of her was that she only seems to care about money and what favors her image. Nonetheless, I hope our concerns at Shining Through are met with proper actions by the mayor’s office. How we take care of our children with services and resources as a city tells others a lot about our officials’ intentions for the people while they are in office.

We need to start making pathways for children, not predators. Our children in this world are watching, listening, and feeling everything we adults are doing. Those children are going to end up shaping and molding the future we live in by our influences.

All of us can take a good look at ourselves and the world around us. We can really think about what kind of world we are teaching our children to create.


Diana Stephoni of Duluth created the grassroots movement Shining Through, which can be contacted by email:

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