Sex trafficking concerns aren't limited to urban areas or North Dakota's oil fields.

When Rachel Reabe Nystrom, Crow Wing County commissioner, attended Association of Minnesota Counties sessions, the paradigm shift from thinking of prostitutes as perpetrator to victim was one of the topics.

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Nystrom was stunned at the ages of the girls.

"Thirteen-year-old girls and 14-year-old girls, I couldn't believe it," she said.

At a spring session, Nystrom didn't expect to hear speakers talk about the Brainerd lakes area as they stressed the issue wasn't solely a big city problem. She was skeptical at first. But the data was there with Duluth as a hotspot with men coming off the ships in port and the Brainerd area with hunting and fishing camps. It was anywhere men gravitated.

Nystrom saw first-hand the number of online postings for hot dates with young women - all listed as 18 years old - in the Brainerd area.

"It is happening here and it is happening everyplace," Nystrom said. "It is happening in Crow Wing County."

In one instance, a desk clerk at a St. Paul hotel grew suspicious after seeing a young girl barely a teenager with an older man. The child was part of a sex trafficking ring. The average age of girls prostituted for sex are first victimized at age 12-14, the Women's Foundation of Minnesota reported looking at national numbers. And 75 percent of girls entangled by prostitution are controlled by a sex trafficker or pimp, the foundation reported.

A Minnesota Girls are not for Sale campaign is a five year, $5 million effort to end sex trafficking in the state.

Nystrom met with Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan and Kara Terry, Crow Wing County Community Services, and reached out to the Brainerd chamber to connect with lodging establishments. The goal: to increase awareness of sex trafficking.

"I think what we are trying to do and this is like step one in a long staircase," Nystrom said.

With funding for the campaign, there is a framework of navigators in the state to assist. A task force is being set up in Brainerd and is in the fledgling stages. Nystrom said the effort has been effective when linking law enforcement, prosecutors and community services.

"Everyone has to understand it's a problem and they need to work together to do it," Nystrom said. Nystrom said it's important to her and her colleagues to stand up on this issue.

In some cases, Nystrom said there were examples of young men coming to small town proms and representing themselves as boyfriends. They looked for potential victims with insecure 13-year-olds hearing compliments from the potential "boyfriend." For the girls who may not be doing well at school or coming from family problems, the compliments may sound like a lifeline. Instead they become a virtual chain around their necks. The boyfriend, who may convince the girl to go away with him, becomes her only source of money, transportation and food. He then prostitutes her for income.

"It's not like she's ever going to graduate and leave," Nystrom said. "They break down their image and their self worth and they feel like nothing.

"It's like they've gone from a child to a broken down adult without any of the emotional support from anybody; in so many ways it's mind control. I'm passionate that people at least think about it, be aware of it and yes it is here in River City."

One of the other areas of activity is around casinos, as a gathering place and social setting to meet people. Nystrom said a disproportionate number of Native Americans are being lured into this life. With technology - Instagram, Snapchat and MeetMe - there are numerous options for sex traffickers to attract and meet girls.

"We've got a simple message and we want people to understand - our girls are not for sale," Nystrom said, adding she hopes the awareness campaign reaches people so if they see something suspicious at a gas station or hotel, they speak up. For the girls, fear or shame, may make them feel they aren't worth an escape, Nystrom said.

"If something doesn't look right, maybe it isn't right," Nystrom said. "It is really building awareness. It has to start there."

The statewide effort will put together the framework so people know who to call. In the Twin Cities, shelters have opened. How a response will look here is still being determined. Nystrom said she hopes they find ways to intervene with the young women so they have a safe place for them to escape and heal from the abuse.

"Their lives aren't over," Nystrom said. "It can be turned around and we have to try."

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz.