Updated: January 23, 2020 06:57 PM
Congressman Pete Stauber and the Support Within Reach Sexual Violence Resource Center hosted a public forum on sex trafficking and exploitation Thursday morning at Itasca Community College.
The event featured different law enforcement agencies, advocacy groups, and Stauber as panelists. All of them have personally seen the trafficking and exploitation of innocent victims.
Caroline Larson, the executive director of Support Within Reach, was one of the panelists. She shared an alarming statistic. She said a Minnesota High School survey showed that Northern Minnesota is the region with the most sexually exploited youth. She also emphasized that sex trafficking and exploitation is something that affects both males and females.
"We have to make sure those offenders are accountable, and what we talked about today is taking the veil off who's doing this," said Stauber.
Larson informed attendees that predators are usually middle class and middle-aged white men.
"The very first thing we need to do is believe the women, believe those victims when they come to law enforcement," said Stauber.
Stauber worked in law enforcement for 23 years in Duluth. He said it's crucial to listen to victims and to get them the help they need to heal.
Fond du Lac Police investigator Kelly Haffield has worked one on one with victims. She said it can be challenging when they don't want to speak with police. Traffickers manipulate their victims and use grooming tactics to get their trust.
"Victims don't always perceive themselves as sex trafficking victims. They are coerced a lot of time into this. Their trafficker is a lot of times somebody that they look up to," said Haffield. "We have contact with these individual numerous times before we can get an opportunity to offer services and and get them out of the life of sex trafficking."
Panelists say we can take steps in helping by joining organizations dedicated to fighting the issue. Also by being aware of red flags.
"When someone is being trafficked their demeanor is different, it's lower key and sometimes they can’t speak for themselves. The trafficker will speak on their behalf," said Haffield.
Panelists said victims will often times walk behind their trafficker, who is usually an older adult. They said casinos and hotels are training employees to recognize signs of sex trafficking.
Panelists also said it's important to talk with our families about boundaries and respect.
"Youth really need to be taught and talked about what a healthy versus unhealthy relationship looks like, what are red flags for an unhealthy relationship, what does consent mean," said Kate Lepage, the central Minnesota Safe Harbor regional navigator.
Panelists expressed there's a need for more services and task forces for vulnerable victims in rural areas.
"We have to start looking at commercial sexual exploitation and how that encompasses a number of situations that people find themselves in, said Lepage. "In rural communities we don't have shelters so people are couch hopping if they're homeless or are on the run. Sex trafficking or exploitation is what some of these victims have to do to stay in a safe and warm bed, especially in Minnesota. It becomes a life or death situation."
More funding for those rural communities is what congressman Stauber says he's going to push for.
"We want to take this information and make sure we put legislation forward and invest in these programs," said Stauber.
To learn more about Support Within Reach, click here.
Updated: January 23, 2020 06:57 PM
Created: January 23, 2020 05:33 PM
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