Four young women from The Blake School who decided to tackle the exploitation of sex-trafficking, the I-494 Corridor Group of law enforcement agencies who worked overtime to stop sex-trafficking during the Super Bowl and the head of an organization that lifts women and children out of poverty were honored Wednesday.
In addition, people who provide services for child abuse victims and an adolescent health specialist were honored at the 18th Annual Hennepin County Attorney’s Office Community Leadership Awards.
Members of the Maple Grove Police Department were honored at the awards ceremony for their work with the I-494 Corridor Group to reduce sex trafficking.
“These leaders are lions,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said in his introduction. “They don’t listen to the doubters, the name-callers, the reticent. They energize others to fall in with them and march us all to a better tomorrow. It is a privilege to be here to honor them.”
Keynote speaker and award winner Gloria Perez, president and CEO of the Jeremiah Program, explained how the program, begun in Minneapolis, lifts single mothers and children out of poverty. Often, women will hear about the program and how rigorous it is and not apply, afraid that they will fail. But eventually, they do apply.
“The women at Jeremiah are determined, they are resilient and they will do for their child what they might not do for themselves,” Perez said.
Jeremiah Program provides the women housing and child care for their young children, Perez said. The women are put through an empowerment class so that they learn their core values and develop new dreams and goals, which often includes work or a college education, she said. The program has been so successful that “has inspired leaders across the country to invest public and private money,” into starting the program in places like Austin, Texas, Fargo-Moorhead, Boston and other places.
“With your values of justice, diversity and integrity, I know we have an ally in you,” Perez said, referring to Freeman and the county attorney’s office. “You give me hope for the future for our families and community.”
Students Against Sex Trafficking, or as Chief Deputy County Attorney for Civil Lolita Ulloa called them, “the power four” are four women from Blake who last year decided to take on sex-trafficking. They organized their classmates, hosted fundraisers and created videos and other marketing materials to raise awareness. Working with the Women’s Foundation, the students raised $100,000.
They decided to move beyond advocacy and approached the county attorney’s office to fund an analyst dedicated to solving sex trafficking cases. In the spring, an analyst was hired to work closely with the sex-trafficking prosecutor and the law enforcement partners working to take sex-traffickers off the street.
Madison Jaye Tix, speaking on behalf of Olivia McHale Bizal, Grace Vojta and Clarissa Cena Wallin, thanked the county attorney’s office for listening to students and also thanked the Women’s Foundation. This is a crime, she said, that could affect a sister, friend, “or quite frankly, one of us.”
The I-494 Corridor Group that has worked for a couple of years on sex-trafficking includes officers and detectives from Bloomington Police Department, Eden Prairie Police Department, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, Maple Grove Police Department, Minneapolis Police Department, Minnetonka Police Department, Oakdale Police Department, Plymouth Police Department, Richfield Police Department, South Lake Minnetonka Police Department, St. Paul Police Department and Woodbury Police Department.
Senior Attorney Dan Allard, who is in charge of the sex-trafficking unit in the county attorney’s office, noted that the public became aware of sex-trafficking during the Super Bowl week last winter. Many of the officers spent 10 consecutive days on sting operations, portraying themselves as 15-year-old girls, Allard said. Since June 2017, the group has been responsible for the charging of 80 sex buyers and more than 20 traffickers and promoters of prostitution.
Patricia Harmon was the executive director of CornerHouse, the nonprofit which was created to work with children who have been abused or neglected. Under her leadership, until she retired in July, they also began working with vulnerable adults. CornerHouse staff has developed unique and nonthreatening ways of interviewing the victims so they can describe what happened. Those interviews can help in getting them services for their recovery and for testifying in court.
“Under Patricia’s leadership, CornerHouse has expanded in many ways,” said Lori Whittier, managing attorney for the county attorney’s Child Protection Division. “Her staff has trained nearly 33,000 professionals from all over Minnesota, the United States and in 20 foreign Countries.”
Josh Peterson, the Youth Intervention Coordinator for the City of Minneapolis, was honored for his leadership in innovative programs in adolescent health and violence prevention. Two of those innovations were bringing the Coaching Boys into Men program to the Minneapolis schools, where athletic coaches work with boys to build healthy relationships and prevent domestic abuse and sexual violence and harassment.
He also coordinated a hospital-based violence intervention program to provide services to victims between 12 and 28 who sustained gunshot wounds, helping the victims overcome the trauma of their injury and getting them resources to get on a positive path.
Finally, the dozen members of the Hennepin County Complex Crime Team were honored. Not only do they prosecute crimes of financial exploitation against seniors, but also speak to people about how to protect themselves against scams. Members of the team regularly visit senior living complexes throughout the county giving their informative talk and answering questions.