Every year, millions of men, women and children are trafficked worldwide — including here in Minnesota.
Human trafficking is defined as the unlawful act of transporting or coercing people in order to benefit from their work or service, typically in the form of forced labor or sexual exploitation.
A virtual community forum was held April 15 online for parents, students, teachers and residents to inform the community about human trafficking. The event was sponsored by the Arden Hills, Shoreview, New Brighton, and Mounds View Rotary clubs.
The panel of speakers at the forum were: Detective Paul Kroshus, an expert in victim-centered trafficking investigations; Jessica Bartholomew, founder of Anti Child Trafficking United; CeCe Terlouw, founder of Terebinth Refuge of Waite Park; and Eleana Lukes, trafficking survivor and
crisis advocate at Terebinth Refuge. The moderator was Angela Davis from MPR News.
Some questions posed by members of the audience and answers from the panel during the community forum appear below. (This Q&A has been edited slightly for clarity.)
Q: The first contact a predator most uses is through social media platforms. Is there any advice on how we should talk to our kids about how to educate themselves and be smart?
A/Kroshus: It's tough and challenging. You want to have these conversations and build an open relationship with your kids and give them a certain amount of a leash to get into social media. The risk you run into shutting down social media altogether is that kids start doing it behind your back. I've got exploitation cases that span across Minnesota that started on Instagram and Twitter. It's horrifying and scary. The predominant way a person is brought into trafficking is usually a boyfriend, a relationship that starts on social media, who is seeking out someone that is vulnerable and easy to exploit. We need to keep kids informed, have open communication and keep these strangers out.
Q: What would it take to get an anti-trafficking program into the Mounds View School District?
A/Bartholomew: The introduction to our program is available online at actunited.org. Talk to your local school to make that bridge to connect with us. The best contact person in your school district would be the staff that works directly with you. For example, your school psychologist, social worker, counselor and/or health teachers. We have the curriculum outline with testimonials from students and teachers on our website.
Q: Many traffickers get their victims addicted to drugs. How difficult is it in terms of getting out of that lifestyle of being addicted to drugs?
A/Lukes: Chemical dependency and exploitation is very interconnected. On the one hand, a trafficker will use drugs to control a victim to make them more compliant, easier to control and submissive to cause less chaos. On the opposite side, there is a trafficker who does not force a woman to be under the influence. Many times those victims use drugs to self-medicate, to escape, to be able to numb the emotions they are going through because of what they are experiencing while being trafficked and exploited.
Q: Are these predators/traffickers local individuals or statewide individuals?
A/Kroshus: They're everywhere. For the most part, the recruitment process a predator uses is, first, they target the right person; they turn them to do their first trick, and then they traumatize them over and over again, including branding them with tattoos. The victim feels trapped and doesn't know what to do.
Q: What are the danger signs that teens should be aware of as they are interacting with their friends or new friends online?
A/Bartholomew: Since kids were placed in online school due to the pandemic, I’ve seen an increase in sexual exploitation online. Social media platforms to watch out for are any that are popular like SnapChat and Instagram, which are very popular with young people. They are being asked to send photos of their chests or of themselves nude. Predators are that direct and blunt, and some students don't report it to their parents. Some kids say they just ignore it or block the person. Having open conversations with your children about what they are doing online is so important. Gaming, social media and dating websites are three major platforms parents need to pay attention to. Asking for sexually explicit photos, offering to send money or gifts, and wanting personal information are real danger signs. If you don't know this person in real life, you don't know them at all.
Q: If you believe your child is in contact with a predator, what should you do?
A/Kroshus: Call your local police department sooner rather than later. It's possible the predator is taking every step to be anonymous, to avoid being caught. When they do make a mistake, we can capitalize on that and identify who they are. If you are finding this type of activity on your kids’ account, thank your lucky stars that you have a good relationship with your child and that they open up to you, because that is a huge step in this fight with exploitation.
For information on human trafficking, go to the Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force website at mnhttf.org.