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Our View: Sex trafficking moves into Minnesota's shadows

From the editorial: "Trafficking destroys lives — and will continue to as long as it’s as invisible as a sneaked text message or as anonymous as an online ad."

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We all know the Hollywood depiction: Dimly lit, dingy street corners; cars slowly rolling by; and young women — too young — in short skirts and with their hair big and their makeup overdone moving in and out of the shadows of the big city.

In 2022, however, with more young people pushed online by the pandemic over the past couple of years, exposing them as potential targets and victims, such scenes from TV and the movies aren’t typical. Instead, sex trafficking now is marked by online ads, secret texts, and discreet locations; and it’s increasingly in rural areas like those in the Northland and in smaller cities like Duluth.

“Predators and traffickers are smart. They know that a lot of these smaller towns have really vulnerable populations in them, maybe a little different from what you might find in a larger city, and so they’re targeting those areas,” Tatiana Bergum, who runs the trafficking-prevention program at North Homes Children and Family Services in Duluth, said in an interview this week with the News Tribune Opinion page. “That internet safety piece for young people is really crucial right now.”

Bergum’s words are among the timely messages she and others have been repeating and promoting throughout January, which is National Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Despite years of awareness, and not just in January, the public health and humanitarian crisis that is trafficking isn’t fixed. Far from it. It may just look a little different than it once did, according to the experts.

No matter what form it takes, the U.S. remains the top country of origin for victims of sex exploitation, according to a 2020 United Nations report. In Minnesota, the Native American community is especially hard hit; between 27 and 54 American Indian women and girls are missing in any given month, a 2020 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women T ask Force report to the Minnesota Legislature determined. In addition, among trafficking survivors receiving services in Minnesota, nearly 75% were Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC), according to the Minnesota Office of Justice Programs and Minnesota Statistical Analysis Center.

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“Being able to help (vulnerable children) and help parents especially understand the world these kids are living in” is a goal right now, Bergum said. “Underlying … are the factors of home insecurity, food insecurity, (and) substance-use disorder. All of those issues overlap and (contribute to) trafficking and the sexual abuse of children.”

Her advice for parents: “You want to have a safe place for your young person when they do get approached by someone who’s not safe, (so they can) come to you and say, ‘This is going on.’”

One more statistic: every month in Minnesota, more than 10,000 ads are posted online selling victims for sex, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. “Their stories are Minnesota’s stories,” the BCA said this month. Agency Superintendent Drew Evans added, “It’s never OK to buy another person for sex. We all must work together to bring sex trafficking to an end in Minnesota.”

Even when parents feel they’ve done everything right, a child can become a victim, according to a suburban Twin Cities couple interviewed on camera by the BCA. The couple was backlit and silhouetted in the video, released by the BCA this month, to hide their identities, in fear their daughter’s traffickers might come after them.

“You can’t look at yourself and say these things don’t happen to families in suburbia, they don’t happen to families whose parents participate in the PTA and are involved in school sports and everything else,” the victim’s father said. “Know that they can. Absolutely know that they can.”

“(Human trafficking) is everywhere,” said her mother. “It’s (in) small towns. It’s in the suburbs. It’s everywhere.”

Their daughter was trusting and was on the diving team at her school, they said. But she started using drugs, spent a night in a shelter, and then went to treatment. She met her traffickers at the treatment facility. They used social media and texting to badmouth her parents and to convince her to escape their rules, to be free. They kept her in a hotel, kept her drugged, and threatened her life and the lives of her family to get her to go along. In just two and a half weeks, she was being sold.

“It’s amazing how quickly it happened, how quickly they went from finding this vulnerable individual to grooming (her) to actually getting (her) to do the act. It was like the blink of an eye,” her father recounted. “I don’t want to scare any young kids, by any means, but they’ve got to be cognizant of the individuals they hang out with. They’ve got to be on the lookout, keep their guard up. You know, if you’ve got individuals that are trying to just even give you alcohol, give you drugs, give you a lot of attention, be careful.”

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“Or if you notice differences in your friends, like with your friend’s appearance declining or knowing that they’re starting to hang out with people they didn’t before, speak up,” her mother said. “Say something to your parents. Say something to your friend” or to a school resource officer or teacher.

And don’t buy into society’s sexualizing of women and girls who, really, should be protected instead and celebrated as life-givers, as Babette Sandman, co-chair of the Duluth Indigenous Commission, said at a virtual event held this month as part of trafficking awareness efforts.

“The way we’re looked upon, the way our bodies are talked about, the different remarks we have to put up with, it’s so bad for us girls growing up that we start wondering if we are actually, if our bodies are, here for men,” Sandman said. “Our young people growing up need to understand who we are as women and who we are as life-givers and have great respect for ourselves and understand why our bodies are made the way they are. They are not made for people to sexually exploit. … And our boys are growing up also with the same messages to sexualize girls at a very young age through music, through media, through friends, through adults.”

Historical attitudes need to be changed, Sandman said.

In spite of the clear, continuing challenges to do just that, there is progress to report.

In 2014, Minnesota enacted a “Safe Harbor” law that protects trafficking victims from being criminalized for prostitution. Wisconsin lawmakers have introduced similar legislation that demands to be passed quickly.

Minnesota also is unique because it asks students about exploitation, specifically whether they’ve been asked to trade sex for drugs or for a place to sleep, food, or other necessities. Troublingly, in 2019, approximately 5,000 Minnesota kids answered yes in the University of Minnesota-led survey. And the highest percentages of those were from up north, according to Bergum.

Also, this week, in another sign of progress, the city of Duluth and several partners announced the Gaagige-Mikwendaagoziwag (“They Are Remembered Forever”) Fund to provide cash incentives to help find missing Indigenous women and girls as well as two-spirit individuals with nonconforming gender identities.

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“I do think we are making great strides. Minnesota has what’s called a public health approach to human trafficking and that requires everyone to look at this as a public health issue. That’s a holistic approach, not just a social justice approach,” Bergum said.

Mel Alvar, a Safe Harbor regional navigator in Duluth for the Minnesota Department of Health, agreed. “I think we’ve come a really long way, especially in the past seven or eight years since (Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law) was implemented. We’re growing. Communication is growing. … More people are being connected with services and help,” she told the Opinion page. “I think there’s always going to be that element of scariness, but the more we bring to light that it’s happening (the better). The scariest thing is for a community to deny that it’s happening. … As parents, there’s a lot we feel is out of our control, but the best thing we can do is have those open lines of communication with our youth.”

Trafficking awareness month is all about bringing “to light that it’s happening.” And the theme this year, “we are connected,” is a call to all of us to unite against what BCA Superintendent Evans called a “terrible crime.”

It’s worse than terrible, though. Trafficking destroys lives — and will continue to as long as it’s as invisible as a sneaked text message or as anonymous as an online ad.

——

WARNING SIGNS
Our kids and others are at risk, especially those who have trouble making friends, whose home lives are unstable, who've experienced abuse, who are homeless, who are transgender, or who share any of a number of other vulnerabilities that make them targets. Survivors of trafficking can be any age, race, gender, or nationality. And they can come from any socioeconomic group or income class.

Everyone can be on the lookout for these signs of exploitation and human trafficking:

** The use of slang like "the life," "daddy," "track," "johns," and "stable"

** The presence of older boyfriends or girlfriends with youths

** Evidence of control or dominance in a relationship, including repeated phone calls; suspicious online activity; unexplained tattoos, especially on the neck or hand; downplayed health problems; inappropriate or sexually provocative clothing; or sudden cash, expensive clothes, a new cell phone, or other big-ticket possessions without an established income

** Frequent fear, anxiety, hypervigilance, and paranoia

** Secrecy and vagueness regarding whereabouts

** Late nights or unusual hours

** Running away

In addition, The Polaris Project (polarisproject.org) is a Washington, D.C.-headquartered nonprofit working to combat and prevent sex and labor trafficking in North America. It offer these warning signs:

In health care:

** A patient with reproductive or sexual health concerns and/or potential signs of sexual violence and reporting an unusually high number of partners

** A patient with work-related injuries reporting that health and safety gear were not provided or conditions were unsafe

** A patient unwilling or hesitant to answer questions about an injury or illness

** A patient accompanied by an individual who does not let the patient speak, refuses the patient privacy, or interprets for them

At hotels, motels:

** A third party appearing to be monitoring a hallway or door (could be a pimp or trafficker)

** A guest unusually interested in surveillance cameras or entrance policies

** Someone dropped off who visits for just 30 minutes or an hour, perhaps with someone waiting for that person in the lobby or parking lot

** Abandoned or locked-out young adults

** Left-behind flyers detailing suspicious magazine-sales tactics

For nannies, house cleaners, and home health aides:

** A live-in domestic worker who sleeps on a floor or in a garage, closet, laundry room, or other place not intended for sleeping

** An immigrant worker whose employer is holding her or his passport or other legal documentation

** A worker rarely or never allowed to leave the home or only allowed out in the company of the employer

** An employer who sets up and controls a domestic workers’ bank account

In the agriculture, forestry, and construction industries:

** Workers living in too-close quarters such as too many people in a single-bedroom apartment who all work in a particular restaurant or store

** Workers living or sleeping at construction sites

** Workers living in unsanitary conditions, such as on a school bus with no running water

TO GET HELP OR REPORT TRAFFICKING
Help and resources are available in Duluth, in Minnesota, and nationally for the victims of sex trafficking and for those looking to report suspicious activity:

** If there’s immediate danger, call 911.

** PAVSA, or the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, a Duluth nonprofit, runs a 24/7 helpline at 218-726-1931.

** The National Human Trafficking Hotline number is 888-373-7888.

** The StrongHearts Native Helpline number is 844-762-8483.

** The Safe Harbor Minnesota website is health.state.mn.us/communities/safeharbor .

** The Minnesota Day One Crisis Line is 866-223-1111; its website is dayoneservices.org .

** To report suspected trafficking to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, call 877-996-6222 or send an email to bca.tips@state.mn.us .

——

OVERHEARD:
'Send some good love and good energy'
“As we speak, there are people being trafficked right now. … We need to start sending energies to the ones who are being trafficked. Just stand and face the direction that you believe they are and send some good love and good energy. Because, wherever they are, holding their head in their hands, they might feel, ‘What is this good feeling coming over me?’ When you smudge, smudge for them, too. And remember them in your prayers.”
— Babette Sandman, co-chair of the Duluth Indigenous Commission, speaking at a virtual event Jan. 13, held as part of National Human Trafficking Prevention Month— Babette Sandman, co-chair of the Duluth Indigenous Commission, speaking at a virtual event Jan. 13, held as part of National Human Trafficking Prevention Month

Shawn Carr holds the microphone as Babette Sandman, chair of the Duluth Indigenous Commission, gives a blessing during the Indigenous Peoples Day commemoration at City Hall on Monday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
Shawn Carr holds the microphone as Babette Sandman, chair of the Duluth Indigenous Commission, gives a blessing during the Indigenous Peoples Day commemoration at City Hall in 2017.
2017 News Tribune file photo

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