With the Super Bowl coming to the Twin Cities in 2018, discussions about human trafficking have been ushered into the spotlight and Anoka County community partners have teamed up to express that the problem goes far beyond any special event.

Fridley Public Schools, Alexandra House, Anoka County Attorney’s Office, Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, Anoka-Hennepin School District, Eagle Brook Church, Hope 4 Youth and the Harriet Tubman Center all partnered together to inform and educate the public of sex trafficking and exploitation of some of our most vulnerable community members.

Back in June, a two-day undercover human trafficking and solicitation operation by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension led to the arrest of 19 people and the rescue of 10 sex trafficking victims in the Twin Cities metro. Those arrested believed they were going to meet up with minors aged 13 to 15 years old for sex. Fifteen men were booked on suspicion of probable cause solicitation of child and two men and two women were arrested on probable cause felony human trafficking.

“Were are trying to provide knowledge so you can look at your own children and their friends and help stop what we are seeing,” said Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo. “Sheriff James Stuart and I are committed to providing information to the public whenever we see a danger to the community and that is what we are seeing.”

Sheriff James Stuart

“Even after a couple decades of law enforcement, I was naive to the problem,” said Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart. “Even as a patrol deputy we didn’t see it everyday, and if you did see it, you probably didn’t recognize it.”

Sheriff Stuart recalled the moment a detective entered his office and asked him two questions: pick a number between 11-14 and blonde or brunette. Stuart understood the meaning behind those questions but remained puzzled as to why an Anoka County detective was asking in the first place.

Stuart said the detective then pulled up “numerous options” on his computer, all youth who were being trafficked in Anoka County. It was this moment that he realized human trafficking was a local problem.

“We are talking about modern-day slavery,” said Stuart. “We are talking about individuals who are as comfortable selling kids as they would be selling a jar of pickles off the shelf in a store. What drives it is supply and demand. It is power, money, and greed. And ultimately men who have a low moral compass.”

Stuart said victims are often recruited at shopping malls, public parks and school events. “These traffickers are evil, but they aren’t stupid. They know where to go to find kids,” he said.

Once spotted, traffickers then lure their victims with the promise of a better life, a place to stay, clothes, jewelry, food and a downpour of compliments.

Stuart spoke of an instance where two girls were approached by a trafficker while standing in a food court line at the Northtown Mall in Blaine.

“He [the trafficker] had already been watching them, zoomed in on them, and found the opportunity to stand in the line behind them,” said Stuart. “Then they slowly break down those barriers.”

Stuart said the traffickers bought the girls earrings and lunch and propositioned them with new iPhones if they agreed to meet him at the mall the following week.

“How many 11 to 14-year-old girls are going to turn down a free iPhone just to show up at a mall and talk to somebody,” said Stuart. “They come back and they break down the barriers and that is how they continue to infiltrate.”  

To bring forward how big of a problem human trafficking really is in Minnesota, Stuart said the Las Vegas Vice Unit refers to Minnesota as “The Factory” because the Minnesota sends more juvenile prostitutes to Las Vegas than any other state in the nation.

“That should be alarming to us,” he said.

Cheri Halek

Hope 4 Youth is a nonprofit organization located in Anoka that meets the needs of young people (23 and under) experiencing homelessness in north metro suburbs.

“Statistics show one in three homeless are trafficked within the first 48 hours of becoming homeless,” said Hope 4 Youth Community Engagement Manager Cheri Halek. “Six thousand homeless youth are out on the street on any given night in the state of Minnesota.”

However, identifying homeless youth is challenging, said Halek. They are young people who have been through a lot of tragedy and as a result have extremely low self-esteem.

“They are not raising their hand for help,” said Halek. “People often think that these are young people who have made bad choices and that they are running away or rebelling or got themselves hooked on drugs, so therefore that is why they are on the street. The truth is that the majority of youth we see affected by homelessness is because of a breakdown in family.”

Halek told the audience a story about a 13-year-old girl who was raised by a meth addict.

“Her mom thought it would be a great idea, when her daughter was 13, to teach her daughter how to use meth,” she said. “Her story began right there and then with addiction. She really didn’t have a shot in life.”

Two years later, the mother was sent to prison and the now 15-year-old meth addict was left to fend for herself.

The girl quickly became a victim of sex trafficking and ended up pregnant.

With the resources provided by Hope 4 Youth, that same girl is no longer using drugs and has been promoted at her job twice.

“The goal is not to get them off the street but to get them off the street and keep them off the street,” said Halek.

Kathryn Luk

Tubman is an organization that aims to help women, men, youth and families who have experienced relationship violence, elder abuse, addiction, sexual exploitation or other forms of trauma.

Kathry Luke, Tubman violence prevention educator, first mentioned the first Safe Harbor Law, a law that decriminalizes prostitution for children under 18. The law was first passed in New York in 2008. In 2011, Minnesota became the third state to pass a Safe Harbor law and the first state to dedicate funding to services.

“We are currently up to being funded $13.1 million,” said Luke. “That goes towards things like running shelters, providing housing, street outreach and other supportive services. And also train counties to develop their own response.”

Luk also explained that in Minnesota, the definition of trafficking is much broader than the federal definition. Federally, an exchange of money is required to be considered trafficking, but in Minnesota trafficking can be classified as anything that is traded or promised to be traded. This can include things like a higher status in a gang or a simple ride somewhere.

“Ninety percent of people that Tubman has worked with are American citizens and 100 percent of people we are working with have histories of complex trauma such as a history of childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking,” she said.

The forum ended with a Q&A session with eight panelists. Audience members texted questions to a number, which were then read aloud by a moderator.

Questions included: Are there women traffickers? Are boys ever victims of sex trafficking? How many victims have been brought into human trafficking through kidnapping? Do victims of human trafficking ever become traffickers?

For more information on human trafficking in Anoka County, visit https://www.anokacounty.us/3317/Trafficking-Exploitation.

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