Fighting back against human trafficking: Kandiyohi County advocates say it happens 'in our backyard'

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WILLMAR — While the Super Bowl is sometimes considered one of the busiest times for human trafficking, survivor advocates want to make sure people know human trafficking for sex is an issue 365 days out of the year, no matter where you live.

"This is a huge topic we need to address," said Stephanie Felt, coordinator of the Kandiyohi County Human Trafficking Task Force.

According to the task force, there are at least six escort companies that do business in the Willmar area, and in one week in April 2017, there were 700 Craigslist ads soliciting sex in the St. Cloud regional area, which includes Willmar.

"It definitely happens in our backyard," Felt said.

To educate and raise awareness, Felt and several other advocates have had speaking engagements around Willmar during the past month. January was National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness month. The topic was addressed at a Jan. 16 meeting of the Willmar Area Women's Fund and at an event Jan. 25 at Ridgewater College.

All races and sexes

A human trafficking victim can be any sex, age or race.

"This is happening to adults, men, boys. This knows no boundaries," said Kasey Baker, director of community outreach at Safe Avenues, which provides advocacy, programming, parenting time services and an emergency shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Traffickers look for people who are depressed, on the streets or have low self-esteem. They target minors through social media or target children who have run away.

"We are talking about middle school kids here," Felt said.

On average, 213 minor girls are sold for sex in Minnesota each month, according to a study conducted by the Schapiro Group in 2010. However, each of those girls could be sold several times a day.

"If someone is being trafficked, they are raped over and over again, multiple times," Felt said.

It is not always about money either. Traffickers and those who buy sex can be offering the victim food or shelter, items needed for simple survival.

"What we are learning about trafficking cases is they are very complex," Felt said.

A regular Joe can be a John

One issue that advocates want to change is placing the focus only on the victims of human trafficking. They would like just as much attention put on those buying the victims.

"We have to start working on that perpetrators piece," Felt said.

A recent study completed by the Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center at the University of Minnesota and the Women's Foundation of Minnesota took an in-depth look at who the sex buyers in Minnesota really are.

According to the report, the sex buyers usually mimic the demographics of the state or community where they live. The perpetrator in Minnesota, the majority of the time, is a white male between the ages of 30 and 60, middle to upper class, married and in many cases a father.

"Is that who you think would be buying?" asked Jen Johnson, executive director of Safe Avenues. "Everyone thinks it's a minority living the thug life. It's not, it is white males driving 30 to 60 miles."

A 2014 study titled "Ordinary or Peculiar Men" reported approximately 14 percent of men indicated they purchased sex online at least once. Using Minnesota's population, the U of M study indicated an estimated 380,000 men have purchased sex online, 26,000 of them in the last year.

"One girl, but she is being trafficked six times a day," Johnson said. "Let's think about that — that is what we should be focusing on."

Justice isn't easy

Local law enforcement and prosecutors would like to see more human traffickers and sex buyers in the courtroom or behind bars, but putting together a successful case can be extremely difficult.

"In the four years I've been with the Kandiyohi County Attorney's Office, we haven't prosecuted anyone," said Assistant County Attorney Aaron Welch during the Jan. 25 event at Ridgewater College.

It is not that law enforcement does not want to shut down and prosecute human trafficking or sex buying, but with a lack of staff and training and uncooperative victims, it is a struggle.

"There are cases we are seeing but we can't necessary prove," Olivia Police Officer and task force member Brian Stenholm said during the Ridgewater College event.

Minnesota's Safe Harbor law, passed in 2014, made changes in how law enforcement and prosecutors look at sexual exploitation cases, especially when children are involved. Prostitution is a crime, but the Safe Harbor law excludes minors from being charged and instead treats them as a victim of a crime. The law also increased penalties for convicted commercial sex abusers and purchasers of minors.

Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt said in a town the size of Willmar, he knows things are happening, which is why he wants to get all his officers trained in how to recognize human trafficking.

"We want to hit it department-wide," Felt said.

As coordinator of the Kandiyohi County Human Trafficking Task Force, Stephanie Felt has started meeting with many different organizations which have a part to play in stopping human trafficking and helping victims. A goal is to make sure all those partners are ready to act if and when a case is broken open.

"Everything is in the works. We are just starting," she said.

From a victim to a survivor

Once a victim is caught in the web of a trafficker, it can be difficult to extract her. For victims, it can be much more complicated than someone having taken them for the sex trade. It might be their own family trafficking them, or they are held in place in order to survive or keep their children safe.

"Victim's don't identify as victims," Felt said.

There is also the lack of trust in law enforcement and prosecutors.

"They are scared of law enforcement," Felt said, because they have been conditioned to be so.

There is also the thought among victims that they won't be believed if they do step forward.

"What we can do is believe people," Welch said. "We have to build those bridges of trust."

To fully bring a victim out of the shadows, it can take years and an army of service providers and advocates.

"Working with victims is really hard. Their cases are unique, but they deserve help like anyone else," Johnson said.

Community reaching out

Crucial for law enforcement, prosecutors and advocates to be successful are community support and the urge to do something. The community can help law enforcement and victim advocate organizations by reporting things they see that don't seem right.

"Don't hesitate to make that call," Baker said.

Those in the audience at the Ridgewater event, where the movie "I am Jane Doe" was screened, shared a feeling of helplessness. But the advocates on the panel said coming to such events is an important first step.

"You being here tonight, you are already involved. You are already helping us in the fight to end human trafficking, because you are here learning about it, and that is pretty amazing," Baker said.

While it is difficult to fight an issue like human trafficking and sexual exploitation that operates in the shadows, the advocates in and around Willmar hope this community will be able to band together to make a real difference.

"We want Kandiyohi County to be one of those counties that buyers, pimps and sellers are afraid to come here because we are all watching, we are all paying attention. We are all saying 'no, not our kids,'" Baker said.

BREAK-OUT BOXES

If you see something, say something

If it's an emergency, call 911.

The following organizations can be contacted if someone in the public has concerns about possible human trafficking or sexual exploitation:

• Safe Avenues 320-235-0962 or 1-800-792-4210

• Lutheran Social Services 320-444-0512

• Kandiyohi County Law Enforcement Center 320-214-6700

Human trafficking in Kandiyohi County

• 700 Craigslist ads soliciting sex in the region in April 2017

• 67 Backpage.com escort ads in the region over seven days in November 2016

• 6 advertised escort companies serving the surrounding area late 2016/early 2017

• 22 youth under 24 years of age reported homeless and trading sex to survive in 2016