SHOREVIEW — During a panel discussion on sex trafficking with the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and members of the Minnesota Human Trafficking Investigators Task Force, a panel member received a serendipitous text.
“A 17-year-old girl just texted me that she is still doing okay,” said St. Paul Police Sgt. John Linssen, who is part of the task force and investigates trafficking cases across the state. The girl was at a shelter, staying in one of the 60 beds statewide reserved for juvenile trafficking victims and funded by Minnesota’s Safe Harbor Program. Without the shelter, the girl would likely be back with her trafficker since her home is not safe either, Linssen added. “She wouldn’t have had a place to go,” he said. “I think that says a lot about what is going on.”
Linssen received the text while Ramsey County Attorney John Choi was explaining the Safe Harbor Program to attendees at the “Working to End Sex Trafficking” forum hosted by the Shoreview Human Rights Commission at the Shoreview Community Center Aug. 13.
Over a decade ago, public safety professionals began to discuss who should really be held accountable for sex trafficking and prostitution, Choi said. The discussion led the Minnesota state Legislature to pass the Safe Harbor Law in 2011. Youth under 18 are no longer prosecuted for prostitution, effective 2014. Safe Harbor also established services for trafficking victims through age 24.
The program started out with two beds; now there are 60 across the state. As a bipartisan issue, the program continues to be well-funded by the Legislature, Choi noted. Funding is also used for training law enforcement and hotel staff to recognize trafficking. Minnesota is unique. Only 13 states have a similar law and only one other has funding associated with it.
In addition to providing services for victims, law enforcement and prosecutors have been working together to increase prosecution of traffickers and buyers over the last decade. Developing trust with victims gives them courage to testify against their traffickers in court, Choi noted.
Catching and prosecuting traffickers and buyers
Police officers perform stings to catch buyers and have become adept at posing as teenage girls via text, Linssen said. Law enforcement puts an ad online and waits to see who responds and shows up to the indicated location. “They open the door and are oh, so disappointed” when they see an officer
instead, Linssen noted. Agreeing to hire a minor for prostitution is a felony. Agreeing to hire an adult is a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor if in public. Law enforcement also poses as adults to catch buyers. Six weeks ago, Linssen assisted in a sting. Fifteen people were arrested over eight hours from a single ad posting.
To catch traffickers, law enforcement carries out surveillance and puts trackers on cars. “The traffickers are slick,” he said. “I have to find ways to trip them up and to catch them.”
Once a trafficker or buyer is caught, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Karen Kugler will decide how to prosecute them. Often, defense attorneys of buyers will try to argue that it was just a sting operation and no one got hurt, so there shouldn’t be any punishment. “I will look at the judge and say the whole reason we do these operations is that if it weren’t for a police officer being in that room, a child would have been raped. So, it is simply the truth.” This winter, she prosecuted a case where the buyer had solicited a child under age 13. “The defendant was an attorney,” she noted.
A current case Kugler is working on regarding a trafficker involved three victims with 12 different brandings on their bodies. “Traffickers view that as a mark of ownership,” she noted. Working with the victims to receive statements about what they have been through is difficult.
“They feel so ashamed,” she said. “Traffickers coach them to not talk about them. … A lot of times they don’t see themselves as victims. … They don’t want to believe they were pulled into something like that.”
Community members can prevent victimization
Trafficking victims often don’t see the manipulation they were subjected to until they are far removed from the situation. Traffickers often woo young girls by posing as a boyfriend. The boyfriend then tricks them into working for him by saying he needs the money for something urgent. He provides food, clothes and a place to stay. He may turn violent or refuse to let them back in the house until they meet a quota. A trauma bond is created.
“It is a game of psychological emotional control,” Kugler said. “It is warfare.”
Victims aren’t always who you’d expect. Traffickers troll places like the Mall of America looking for girls who look vulnerable. They pose as a lover boy in public or online. “It’s amazing how many people have been picked up just through Facebook,” she said. Runaways are at risk, but girls from stable homes are also tricked. Traffickers watch for those with low self-esteem.
“You or I might pass those kids and think, ‘troublemaker.’ A trafficker is going to hone in on that person and say there is potential there,” she explained.
The average age of entry into prostitution is 13, Choi said. There are very few adults who really would have chosen the lifestyle for themselves. “The vast majority of all these situations are vulnerable people that are being taken advantage of,” he said. “When victims come to us, they have been traumatized far beyond what we could ever imagine.”
The form of sexual violence is driven by greed and money, power and control, and demand. The issue can’t just be solved by prosecution, he added. Choi looks to community members to make a difference in society to prevent it from happening. As most perpetrators are men, Choi asks communities to consider how they raise boys and influence young people. If boys are raised to be loving and respectful then girls will be valued and safe, he noted. He recommends the “A Call to Men” program for schools and community groups. Young men should be told that it isn’t manly to be sexually violent, he explained. “If we don’t say it then Hollywood or something else starts defining what morals we should have.”
Julie B. Williams, a Shoreview Human Rights Commission member for 25 years, remarked on the importance of the topic for the community and why the commission invited the panel to Shoreview. “Experiencing victimization can precipitate long-term mental health issues as well as juvenile and adult crimes,” she noted. “It’s always easier to prevent a crime than deal with the aftermath.”