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Forum delves into shady practices behind sex trade

Area residents funneled into the Franklin Arts Center Thursday to shed light on the manipulative business practices behind sex trafficking—a daunting criminal industry that deals in billions of dollars and millions of lives.

Human trafficking is the second-largest criminal enterprise, accruing revenue in the ballpark of $32 billion. The amount of sex trafficking crimes have increased threefold during the last two decades, largely because of the rise of the internet—although, Naomi Nelson, the central Minnesota navigator for Lutheran Social Services and one of the hosts of the event, said this may be more indicative of increased awareness and more effective law enforcement tactics, not a substantial increase in the crimes themselves.

About 50 attendees, organizers and panelists gathered at the Franklin Arts Center auditorium to take part in a form regarding sex trafficking, or "Supply: A glimpse into the life—Victims and Traffickers." A presentation delved into the manipulative practices of traffickers to kidnap and control victims, as well as the circumstances that drive people into the sex trade.

More often than not, victims are individuals who have destabilized backgrounds—coming from broken homes, victims of sexual abuse or estranged from their families. This provides a situation exploiters can take advantage of by manipulating emotional trauma to their advantage without the possibility of a caregiver or guardian stepping in to stop them. One out of three children who run away from home are solicited for sex within 48 hours.

The presenters noted the stereotype of a typical trafficker or pimp—African-American, lower-class and urban—can mislead people. Traffickers come from all ages, genders and walks of life and they often use an elaborate system of coercion and emotional blackmail to get what they want.

"We like to view traffickers as businessmen because, for them, it's about profit. It's about the money," Nelson said, who added trafficking may be attractive to these people because it's lucrative, as well as low-risk of capture compared to other forms of crime.

This was followed by an interactive discussion with a panel of local experts—including Jim Exsted, Baxter police chief; Rhonda Kline, Crow Wing County family services supervisor; Heidi Fairchild, a victim advocate at Sexual Assault Services in Brainerd; Krista Jones, Crow Wing County probation officer; Kathy Sauve, director of housing, youth and family resources for Lutheran Social Services in Brainerd; and Assistant Crow Wing County Attorney Janine LePage.

Much of the discussion between audience members and the panel centered around preventative measures residents in Crow Wing County can do to combat sex trafficking in the Brainerd lakes area. Panelists responded it's often a matter of being mindful and paying attention to any abnormal activities by young people, who are are often victims—an already difficult task that has become even more challenging with the loss of family systems like sharing meals or communicating regularly face-to-face.

Panelists emphasized awareness begins with being educated on the signs of vulnerability traffickers often exploit. Beyond that, Sauve said, it comes down to a matter of parental vigilance and taking the extra effort to monitor the activities of the children in one's life.

"Pay attention to the young people. Nobody is sitting down to have dinner together. Everyone is busy, busy, busy, right?" Sauve told the audience. "Our cellphones that we give to children at young ages, no one is paying attention to the apps on there. Be attentive. Get those passwords. Don't let your kids or whoever they're involved with have a Facebook (or any social media account) without knowing those passwords."

Exsted said a paradigm shift—in which prostitutes, especially minors, are viewed more as victims than criminals—and the resulting legislative changes resulted in more positive outcomes for combating sex trafficking. He cited the advent of Minnesota's "safe harbor laws" in recent years, which do not treat minors as prostitutes in the domain of law enforcement, but abuse victims in the care of social services.

In terms of expenditure on the issue, Sauve noted Minnesota is doing more than most states in the matter of sex trafficking—her point of emphasis, however, was that more than money, there are a large number of youths in the Brainerd lakes area who need the support of their elders.

"We also have these girls and these boys in the community that are just prime (targets for sex trafficking). Programs, books are great, but they don't change people. Relationships change people. The way a child is going to get out of this or not move into that life is by developing relationships," Sauve said, adding funding for programs that assist with these issues before children are victimized are commonly not included.

Brainerd may present an attractive location for sex trafficking, based on its size relative to surrounding rural communities, it's position as a transportation hub in the center of the state, as well as the presence of hotels, motels and other establishments where transactions typically take place.

However, during a phone interview Nelson said rural areas are also susceptible to sex trafficking because of how difficult it is to enforce the issue in these kinds of settings.

"You can't monitor all those different areas like you can in a city. You can't be driving past every location to see what's going on because you just don't have the manpower to necessarily do it," Nelson said. "We are responding to it here. With the media and the internet that can allow us to find out the online activity and solicitations, but it still requires money and people to do it."

Nelson noted that familial traffick—or transactions of human beings between family members or friends—is still a common occurrence in the industry and, while it flourishes online, much of sex trafficking still takes place on word of mouth. Often these familial transactions revolve around drug use.

Since Minneapolis' U.S. Bank Stadium was selected to be the site of Super Bowl LII, Nelson said there have been collaborative meetings between governing bodies, law enforcement and social services to formulate an appropriate and effective response to the expected surge in sex trafficking associated with the largest sporting event in North America on Feb. 4.

Historically, Super Bowls have been touted as some of the largest gatherings of sex trafficking in the world—though the sporting event itself doesn't necessarily facilitate this kind of crime inasmuch the Super Bowl is an enormous concentration of tourists and recreational draws, both of which are prime grounds for sex trafficking.

While it's impossible to say whether this kind of activity will spread to Crow Wing County—Nelson said local law enforcement and social services have been preparing for that possibility.

Thursday's forum was one of multiple events in the area hosted by Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota to honor January's role as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Lutheran Social Services is an organization based out of St. Paul with programs that provides services to residents in all 87 counties of the state.

Prior to the forum, the Franklin Arts Center was the site of another presentation on the "demand" portion of the sex trafficking business equation. Remaining on the schedule, is an event for parents and youths titled "Do you know how to stay safe on the internet?" from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Brainerd Family YMCA, 602 Oak St. Also on the docket, is "Art of Alchemy: An inside view of the transformational process." Veronica Wanchena—also known as Gabriel Orion Marie, a published author, artist and trauma survivor—will be the subject of an art exhibit detailing her journey from trauma to healing and restoration between noon-4 p.m. Saturday at the Franklin Arts Center. Wanchena will speak on the subject between 1-2:30 p.m.