Human sex trafficking is a growing concern across the country. While population size is a contributing factor, even small communities in Minnesota are not immune, as shown by a presentation at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Backus.
Aimee Jambor, who worked in alternative education in Brainerd, gave the presentation Tuesday, April 27. She presented information from Kate LePage, Central Minnesota Regional Navigator with Lutheran Social Services, state funded studies as well as personal experiences as a school and parish nurse and in alternative education.
"There is a market for anybody. There is a buyer for anybody in this room. I could sell anybody in this room."
— Aimee Jambor
The way in which sex trafficking and exploitation are discussed has changed. Jambor said that today, those who are exploited in sex trafficking are "victims," not "prostitutes." Those once identified in law enforcement as "Johns" are now "buyers," and the third party benefiting from the transaction is now the "trafficker."
This vocabulary, notably pertaining to the victim, is important, especially since the adoption of the 2011 Safe Harbor law designed to allow an avenue for young victims to find help and a way out of the system.
"It's a legal protection service for sexually trafficked or exploited youth," Jambor said. "They guarantee them services, housing, shelter and they give them training and help them get out of the situation they're in."
Jambor said Safe Harbor helps to put the problem in the spotlight because victims are not charged when they come forward for help. Other states without similar options may not be fully aware of the extent of their issues because those who are trafficked will not come forward for fear of legal penalties.
Perhaps most shocking were her personal experiences in seeking help for exploited teens.
"Most victims are familiar with the person that chooses to traffic them," Jambor said. "It could be a parent. A 13 year old girl from a neighboring community here was pregnant when she came in. I found out her mom was pregnant at the same time and they needed help with rent. She (the mom) rented out her daughter's bedroom to a man who is 21 years old, and this is the man that impregnated the daughter."
In that story, it was not only the man who exploited the teenage daughter, but also the man's friends. This case was further complicated because the family made no complaints; therefore, Jambor said there were no legal grounds to pursue.
"When we think there is a problem, we really are obligated to call and ask someone to check into it"
— Aimee Jambor.
The woman and her daughter may not have considered the girl a victim. Jambor said many exploited youth don't consider themselves victims and only see the exchange as a means of survival.
In addition, trafficking is not like it is presented in movies and television. Children are not swept off the street into a white van and hidden. They are often working part-time jobs, attending school and visible in public, and they are most often trafficked by someone familiar to them, not strangers.
Some might think that only certain people are the target for exploitation, but Jambor said that's simply not true.
"There is a market for anybody," Jambor said. "There is a buyer for anybody in this room. I could sell anybody in this room."
Among youth served through the Safe Harbor Act (which applies to individuals age 24 and younger), the average age of victims is 17, with the majority being between ages 12 and 18. On average, many victims were first trafficked at age 13.
Trafficking does not discriminate by gender. The exploitation percentages for cisgender (people whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth) males are nearly the same as for cisgender females at 1.2% and 1.3%, respectively.
There are, however, those who are more at risk. Transgender and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning and/or queer youth (who are also more likely to be homeless) are more likely to be trafficked at 5.9%. Minorities are victimized at higher rates than Caucasians.
There are life experiences that put individuals at a higher risk of being trafficked. Those who have been in foster care are at higher risk, as are those who have been in a youth detention center, have experienced sexual violence, have unstable housing or attend alternative schooling. Low self-esteem, mental health issues and unhealthy internet habits can make youth more vulnerable.
Jambor said there are red flags to watch for, such as youths who have untreated health problems, multiple sexually transmitted diseases or infections, unreasonably large sums of cash or multiple electronics, or who are regularly on the run or wear inappropriate clothing for their age and for the weather.
Changes in mood, behavior and sleep, as well as increases in truancy can also be indicators.
Jambor provided the gathered group with resources for support and for more information. In addition to the Brainerd Lakes Area Sex Trafficking Task Force there is the Juvenile Risk Assessment Team, local law enforcement, the county attorney's office, public health services, Lutheran Social Services and school resource officers.
While Jambor said she is a mandated reporter due to her job, she also said everyone should behave as mandated reporters and speak up if they have concerns for someone.
"When we think there is a problem, we really are obligated to call and ask someone to check into it," she said.
Jambor said it is important for all youth to have support of their family and community that they know they can depend on. She suggested that being members of a church community could provide valuable resources to prevent exploitation. As for those who need help, it takes time and lots of effort.
"Helping them is what they call a marathon, not a sprint," Jambor said. "Very, very difficult to get kids out of this situation."
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.