Community United to Fight Sex Trafficking – (Part One in the Spotlight on Sex Trafficking)

(Originally published in the Pine County Courier January 18, 2018)
Emilee Franklin

Community United to Fight Sex Trafficking

(Part one in Spotlight on Sex Trafficking)

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What do health and human services employees, Pine County Sheriff’s Department, Duluth Police Department, judges, school employees, students, survivors and concerned citizens all have in common? On January 10, they joined together at Grand Casino Hinckley for the all day Uniting to Combat Sex Trafficking forum. More than 320 participants from three states and three tribal nations joined together to learn more about the problem and how communities must work together in order to combat it. The event was organized by the Pine County North Stars, a local multidisciplinary team with the common goal of preventing sexual exploitation of Pine County youth.

This event couldn’t be more timely as January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. According to the Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking is “modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”

While it has been thought to be something that occurs in other countries or just in major cities, the training has shown that human trafficking is something that can occur anywhere including Pine County.

“Every child feels insecure at some point; any child is vulnerable,” said Judge Robyn Millenacker. Almost all of the speakers stressed that trafficking can occur anywhere there is unmonitored Internet.

The event featured speakers from different organizations and disciplines who offered their experience dealing with trafficking and offered insights into what they do, and what individuals can do, to fight the problem.

The day started with a prayer and tribal invocation from Joe Nayquonabe Sr., a tribal elder. It was followed by a brief introduction from Bonnie Rediske of the Pine County North Stars. Rediske spoke on the importance of cross-jurisdictional work regarding sexually exploited youth. Rediske said that coming together is just the beginning, keeping together is progress, and working together is success.

“When we build relationships, that’s what’s going to lead to success,” Rediske said.

Officers Chris Martin, Nick Lepak and Sergeant Mike LaFontaine from the Duluth Police Department followed by explaining how they respond to sexually exploited youth and sex trafficking. They are from the department’s special unit called SCAN, which is Sex Crimes Abuse and Neglect. A big focus of their presentation was how they work with other agencies.

“We cannot fix this alone,” LaFontaine said. “We take each case, case by case.”

The department estimated that trafficking investigations take around two to three months each. Not only do they focus on getting victims out of trafficking, they also try to be proactive in keeping individuals out of it.

As soon as a kid runs away from home multiple times, they will try to interview them, in an effort to see what is really going on and if they are in danger of being trafficked. If they believe they are in danger, they will try to create safety plans with the youth.

“A big step in prevention is monitoring your kids’ phones, Facebook and social media posts,” said Officer Martin. Traffickers will often target kids on social media and become friends with them. After becoming friends, traffickers will often pay the individual compliments and talk to them quite often.

Once establishing trust, they will agree with the child and comfort them. One of their goals is isolating them. If traffickers are able to get this far, they may try and make a move on the child. Examples of this would be starting a relationship, suggesting modeling, or spending time together. This might sound a bit far-fetched, but it is happening quite often. Once traffickers get the victims away from home, they will often threaten and beat them to keep them in the trade.

Social worker Amanda Gopal of North Carolina provided insight into the trauma victim’s experience and how individuals can approach victims in a trauma-informed way, thus not re-victimizing victims. She specializes in individuals affected by sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder and sex trafficking.

She stated that sex trafficking is a complex trauma that has multiple layers. These layers are the physical abuse, assault, verbal and emotional abuse, many sexual assaults, and potentially witnessing the abuse of others. In a simple math equation, she estimated how many assaults a victim may endure each year.

In her example, she suggested a victim would need to make $500 a day. If they were able to charge $50 per act, that would be 10 sexual acts a day. If they had to work 350 days a year, that would be 3,500 sexual assaults the victim must endure each year. She mentioned in her experiences some survivors of sexual abuse struggle with one assault; now imagine potentially 3,500 in a year or more.

After lunch, Rebekah Charleston, a survivor of sex trafficking, took the main stage. She was trafficked for over 10 years. She shared her story of how she got into it, her experiences and complications she faces in her life now that she is out of the trafficking ring. Charleston now dedicates her life to education and prevention in hopes that no other victim will share her experiences.

Judge Robyn Millenacker of Ramsey County also shared her experiences of working with trafficked and exploited youth in the courtroom. Millenacker mentioned how it can be difficult for the untrained to identify trafficked youth as well as shared how beneficial it was for one of the youth in her courtroom to have the same people dealing with her each time she was in the system.