Forum addresses trafficking and exploitation in rural communities

U.S. Congressman Pete Stauber partnered with Support Within Reach in Grand Rapids to host a community forum at Itasca Community College Thursday, Jan. 23. The forum focused on the issue of sexual violence and exploitation with a diverse group of panelists speaking about what their organizations are doing to address the problem.

Panelists included:

• Kelly Haffield, investigator with the Fond du Lac Police Department and commander of Tribes Against Sex Trafficking task force.

• Investigator Brian Pottratz with Tribes Against Sex Trafficking and Leech Lake Tribal Police Department.

• Caroline Larson, executive director of Support Within Reach.

• Investigator Mark Greiner with the Itasca County Sheriff’s Office and an affiliate member of the Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).

•Kate LePage, Central Minn. Safe Harbor Regional Navigator as a part of Lutheran Social Services.

• Roger Smith, tribal council member for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa as a district representative. Smith is currently on a leave of absence from the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office where he works as a deputy. He is also on Minn. Governor Walz’s task force on missing and murdered indigenous people.

“Is there something that seems really unusual?” Larson asked when discussing signs of trafficking and exploitation of youth. Signs such as having two cell phones, more money, older friends of the opposite sex were given as examples.

“We need to open our eyes to see that it is here in our local communities,” Greiner remarked. “Does this happen every day? Maybe not. But we have to see the signs, we have to be able to reach out to those victims and help them out.”

Haffield shared that her work involves many chronic runaway cases. She also emphasized that this is an issue for men and women of all ages. Lepage confirmed this as she shared that trafficking and exploitation is seen 50/50 between boys and girls.

Every year, the Minnesota Department of Health conducts a survey of Minnesota youth. A new question was added to the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey to help understand the prevalence of sexual exploitation among Minnesota students.

“University of Minnesota researchers arrived at the 5,000-youth estimate based on the state’s youth population combined with results from the question asking 9th and 11th graders whether they had traded sex for something of value,” according to a report from the Minnesota Department of Health. “In the 2019 survey, 1.4% of students responded “yes” to the question.”

Larson acknowledged the study and added that Northern Minnesota was found to have the highest amount of exploited youth in the state. The study found that 2% of northeast Minnesota, including Itasca County, students reported that they had traded sex for something of value.

“The analysis also found young people impacted by sexual exploitation have hopes and dreams for their future with 63% saying they wanted to pursue higher education after high school, 17% work or career training, 7% the military and 14% other pursuits,” reported the Minnesota Department of Health.

Casinos and hotels are often popular locations for trafficking as they are usually the only place open 24 hours a day in rural areas. Haffield discussed the training her department has been able to do with hotels and casinos to teach workers how to recognize the signs of trafficking. While Haffielf said there hasn’t been a great increase in the number of people arrested, there has been an increase in reports from hotel and casino workers.

“They really were the first ones in the state to take a step forward on this,” Haffield said.

Notably, hotels and motels require their employees to complete the training within 30 days of hiring, according to Haffield. She noted that casinos and reservations also have this requirement and have had it in place prior to when it became a law.

“From the elected officials, our responsibility is to make sure they have the funding for these programs. And when these initiatives are working we have to fund more,” Stauber stated. “We have the opportunity to do this right now.”

The looming question for attendees was what can the average citizen do to help stop exploitation. Larson discussed the group Community Against Sexual Exploitation (CASE) that was brought together by Support Within Reach. The group consists of victim service advocates, faith-based organizations, criminal justice professionals and community members. Becoming involved with the group is one step people can take to help stop these crimes.

“It’s not just law enforcement or the advocacy,” remarked Stauber. “Every single one of us in this auditorium this morning is responsible to fix and help stop this heinous crime. It’s incredibly important.”

For more information about Support Within Reach, visit supportwithinreach.org

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