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Prevention focus in local fight against trafficking - Foster homes for survivors sought

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Identifying more sex trafficking survivors and preventing young people from becoming victims in the first place are the focuses of law enforcement and advocates in the Brainerd lakes area.

In recognition of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month in January, proclaimed by Pres. Barack Obama, those focused on the issue locally are sharing plans for approaching the issue in upcoming months. These plans include expansion of its Saving Grace foster care program, implementation of a curriculum intended to educate young women on sexual exploitation and trafficking and plans to partner with the Brainerd School District on prevention efforts.

"We don't think stuff like this happens in small town Minnesota," said Kathy Sauve, director of youth, housing and family resources at LSS in Brainerd. "We don't want this to happen in small town Minnesota. We don't want our girls or our young boys to be trafficked. ... In the experience of the youth that we've worked with and identified, not one of them has sat down and said, 'Hey, I'm a trafficking victim.' It's getting to understand the terminology and what they're seeing and helping them through that. Everything that we do is really trauma-informed care."

A program unique to the Brainerd lakes area will see expansion in the new year, Sauve said, in part because of a growing need statewide to provide housing opportunities for youth victims. The Saving Grace program, which is a one-of-a-kind foster care program providing family home settings for exploitation and trafficking victims, is in need of more foster care homes.

"Because we've had an increase in the number of referrals coming in, we want to be able to serve them well," Sauve said. "We want to do some culturally specific homes because we recognize there's a need for that. ... As we're starting to grow in the Safe Harbor program, understanding the need of the youth that are coming is important. We're going to get youth from all over."

Sauve said culturally specific homes could be those for Latino, Somali, native or other populations among identified victims. Sauve said the organization will host an information session on the Saving Grace program for potential host homes. The session will be 6-7 p.m. Jan. 26 at the Brainerd office, 716 E St.

The Brainerd office of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota recently welcomed a new regional navigator, Naomi Nelson. As part of the "No Wrong Door" model of assisting youth victims, regional navigators are tasked with providing training to law enforcement, school officials and others working with juveniles to recognize sexual exploitation and to educate these groups on the services available. They also work directly with youth victims to connect them with services they need. The 2013 Safe Harbor Law in Minnesota provides funding and prosecution protection for victims under age 17, and was recently expanded to include funding for victims 18-24 to receive services.

Nelson, whose territory covers an eight-county region—Aitkin, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd, Benton, Stearns, Sherburne and Wright counties—said she's focused on educating as many people in the community as possible how to identify victims, ensuring more people who need services have access.

"With more referrals, we've been able to serve more youth," Nelson said. "While serving more youth, we're able to hear from them and change what our protocols are, and make appropriate changes so that we know how to best serve them in multiple ways. With that, that also shows us the severity of the issue and what's going on for these youth. So we are working on prevention efforts in 2017. That is going to be one of our key focuses."

Nelson comes to LSS with a background in working with victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. As a student at St. Cloud State University, she was part of a student group that advocated the passage of the Safe Harbor Law. She went on to work with pornography stars in Las Vegas and with women in brothels in India and southeast Asia. Originally from the area, Nelson said she was excited to return to work in a field she's passionate about.

"It was really exciting when I saw a Safe Harbor position open, because it's been something that's been near and dear to my heart for a long time," Nelson said.

Nelson and Sauve will also lead sessions of "My Life My Choice," a 10-week curriculum geared toward vulnerable girls 13 to 18 years old. The program, which will be taught to girls referred to LSS by law enforcement, school officials, therapists and other service providers, will focus on issues such as drugs, healthy relationships, self-esteem and social media safety.

Sauve said the organization has met with the Brainerd School District to examine ways to incorporate prevention into the schools. This could mean staff trainings to help identify students at risk or potential sexual exploitation activity, along with offering education on how to discuss the matter with young people.

Nelson said it's important for parents and other adults to be aware of red flags, including sudden changes in youth behavior, friendships, romantic relationships and social media behavior. Some specific experiences Nelson cited included offers for a young person to become a model, exploitation through web cameras that don't include meeting directly with a buyer and grooming by exploiters through social media websites.

Sauve said the best preventive measures are ensuring an open dialogue between parents and youth is established.

"It's OK to say, 'Who are all these friends on Facebook?' and not be scared about that," Sauve said.

When they do identify an at-risk youth, Nelson said they can call her as the regional navigator to take it from there. She said her job is to ensure the collection of possible resources is available for each survivor or potential victim.

"If we don't have it (services), they're going to fall in the cracks and they're not going to be served in the best practice way," Nelson said. "My hope is to first kind of have this underneath level of everyone knowing what to do with victims and being aware, get the community educated to identify red flags."

Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted said his department is equipped to identify victims or at-risk youths who might need services from advocates, including mental health, housing, legal services and others. Exsted has led the charge on the law enforcement side, conducting multiple sting operations in an effort to deter local trafficking activity.

"Our work, I think, has really deterred all the activity around our specific area anyway," Exsted said. "So that has pushed us into a more proactive mode."

Exsted's department was selected for a $46,000 grant from the state Office of Justice Programs to support costs in 2016 and 2017 associated with efforts on sex trafficking, including overtime, equipment and training. He said they are in the process of refocusing efforts to partner with neighboring law enforcement agencies in places where trafficking continues to be a concern.

"We know we have the money there should a case come up through our partnerships with the advocates. That's where a lot of our attention is focused," Exsted said. "We've focused heavily on the law enforcement side when we started, where now we need to transition and do some prevention and outreach that way."

Baxter police and other grant recipients are meeting this week, Exsted said, in an exchange of ideas and practices to fight trafficking. Exsted said it's been a learning process for many law enforcement agencies, but statewide collaboration appears to be the best way forward.

"I think what we did here is being done regionally across the state, and I think as those regions continue to work hard, the recognition pushed statewide and creates that trickle-down effect," Exsted said.

Becoming involved or seeking help

Interested in becoming involved in prevention efforts? In need of help, or know someone who does?

• Attend an information session to learn about becoming a host home for specialized foster care program Saving Grace, geared toward youth victims of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. The session will be 6-7 p.m. Jan. 26 at the Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota office in Brainerd, 716 E St.

• Attend a meeting of the STOP Coalition, a group of people interested in discussing ideas to combat trafficking. Meetings are open to the public. The next meeting is at noon Feb. 27, at the LSS office in Brainerd.

• Refer a young woman at risk for exploitation or trafficking to the "My Choice My Life" program, which is a curriculum for girls age 13-18. The program is intended to address issues such as drugs, healthy relationships, self-esteem and social media safety. For more information, email Naomi Nelson at naomi.nelson@lssmn.org.

• Contact Nelson, the organization's regional navigator, for more information on any program, to make a youth referral or with any questions or concerns regarding the topics of youth sexual exploitation or trafficking. Nelson can be reached at 218-824-3784, 218-821-0943 or through the 24-7 hotline at 1-866-824-3770.

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