Key players in the fight against sex trafficking in the Brainerd lakes area told an audience Monday night they cannot be successful without the help of the community.

"It's all of you, all of you who are the eyes and ears of our community," said Eric Klang, president of the Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government and Pequot Lakes Police chief. "We are asking for your partnership. ... Don't let tonight be the end of your learning."

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Sex trafficking was the subject matter explored in Monday night's Rosenmeier Forum at Central Lakes College, featuring expert panelists from law enforcement, prosecution and victim advocacy along with a survivor of youth sexual exploitation. "It's closer to home than you think" was the tagline for the event that drew about 40 people to the Chalberg Theatre.

Klang described sex trafficking, or forced prostitution, as 21st century slavery occurring in communities all across Minnesota, the United States and the world.

"And yes, right here in little old Brainerd, Minnesota," Klang said. "They are not sluts, whores, hoes, skanks or easy Annies. They are Tammies or Cassies or Brittanys or Jessies or Wendys. And those are just the names from the Brainerd area."

Those in attendance heard from Kathy Sauve, program director at Lutheran Social Service in Brainerd, and Monica Miller, northwest regional navigator on sexually exploited youths.

Sauve described a recently funded program in the Brainerd lakes area, which provides a specialized foster care program for a trafficking victim. Sauve said for years she's looked for ways to attack the problem locally, and the new program-called Saving Grace-along with the establishment of a regional navigator based in Brainerd are both signs of progress.

The foster care program was host to one victim already, a 16-year-old girl.

"All she talked about was dreams, being alive and being accepted," Sauve said. "If we do anything with our programs, and we help that one young lady, then I'm happy."

Miller is not only an advocate in the field of sexual exploitation, she is also a survivor of it herself. She shared her own harrowing story with the audience-of coming from a broken home, falling into one vulnerable situation after another before she was trafficked on the streets of Minneapolis. Miller shared her story publicly for the first time with the Brainerd Dispatch in September 2015.

She recalled after seeing the movie "Pretty Woman" how unrealistic the portrayal of prostitution was in comparison to her own experience.

"I lived in a place where there wasn't even a bed," Miller said. "I lived in a place where I was lucky to eat once a day. ... The johns who bought me, I wasn't human to them, I was an object to them."

Using figures provided by Klang during his earlier presentation, Miller said if she were to perform five sex acts a day-which she said was a low number-that equated to 1,820 sex acts in a year.

"I'm just going to be real here. That's 1,820 rapes," Miller said.

She said the idea that when a woman turns 18 years old, working in the sex trade suddenly becomes a choice rather than a forced act is a false notion.

"When we talk about choice we have to talk about what it really is," Miller said. "It doesn't matter if they're 5 or they're 99. It's 1,820 rapes a year."

Miller said the only way we as a society can progress toward the elimination of sex trafficking is by working together.

"This happens in your community, and you can be a part of making this end," Miller said. "We together can reach out to our families, to the people we know, and we can say no more. This is not going to be allowed anymore. We're going to start treating each other with respect. I talk all the time about, it takes a village to raise one child. But if our village is looking the other way, than we're not helping each other out. It's time for us to get in each other's business."

Russ Wicklund, deputy chief of the Baxter Police Department, said area law enforcement increased focus on the problem after Rochester police arrested a Brainerd man for attempting to recruit an undercover officer to work as a prostitute in Brainerd. But there were other troubling signs of the trade occurring locally, he said. One case in particular involved a repairman working on a heater at a local hotel at 2 a.m. who noticed a young girl hanging around a stairwell.

Officers found the girl, who turned out to be 15 years old, nearby in a vehicle with men she called her uncles. Wicklund said with everything they now know, it likely was a youth trafficking situation.

Law enforcement stings conducted locally, with an undercover officer posing as a prostitute, have resulted in more than 20 arrests of men seeking paid sex. Wicklund said what's more important to law enforcement is the victims they've made contact with as part of their operations.

"We've identified several victims and offered services to those victims," Wicklund said. "It's difficult dealing with the victims due to the travel. They might be from the Twin Cities, they might be from out of state. It's hard to keep track of them, but we are trying."

Wicklund said one of the victims they identified through investigative work did not accept help right away-a common occurrence for those working with the victim population-but a month later called one of the Baxter investigators from Milwaukee.

"She said she's had it, she wants to get out, she's tired of the life," Wicklund said. "I've never seen him (the investigator) run around trying to round up people like that."

Wicklund said it was great "to see a veteran officer, who is kind of hardened, care that much." The work is not done, he added, and law enforcement will continue to combat trafficking by any means possible.

"We'll continue on doing more and focus more on the trafficking end," Wicklund said. "We need the public's help reporting suspicious circumstances."

Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan, who has personally prosecuted each of the prostitution cases resulting from area law enforcement stings, said there was no clear pattern among those arrested for soliciting prostitution.

"They were of various ages, from farmhands to very successful businessmen ... and of all socioeconomic levels," Ryan said.

He also attributed the increased focus on the issue locally to the Rochester Police trafficking arrest in March 2015.

"It was really embarrassing when they arrested a trafficker in Crow Wing County, and we didn't even know they were there," Ryan said.

Ryan said he is seeking gross misdemeanor convictions in all of the cases arising from the sting operations, in part because of a drive for restorative justice. All of those convicted thus far were required to attend a program intended to hold buyers of illegal sex accountable while raising awareness of the impacts of sex trafficking.

"Once you're convicted, does it do me good to throw you in jail for a year and not to try to educate you (about) why you shouldn't do it or help to educate society why this isn't 'Pretty Woman'? I don't think so," Ryan said.

Ryan said of 22 arrests made in the stings, his office charged 20 of the men arrested. One case is currently under advisement, while charges were declined in another because the suspect killed himself.

A question-and-answer session following the panel presentations resulted in attendees expressing appreciation for Miller's bravery at sharing her story and gratitude for those working on the problem.

"This room needs to be full of people," said Anna-Maija Lee, a Brainerd mom and social worker who attended with her teen daughter. "I am so proud to be a member of this community, I will say. This community does a lot and is very progressive in many areas, and I just want to thank all of you for your role in this. This has been a wonderful learning opportunity."

  

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.

 

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