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Sex trafficking making inroads in Brainerd lakes area

The Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza is the largest charitable ice fishing contest, and the family-fun event annually attracts anglers and spectators from far and wide.

From Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, Naomi Nelson (left), central Minnesota regional navigator, Kate LePage, Saving Grace case manager, Kathy Sauve, housing, youth and family resources director, and Molly Koop, Saving Grace program coordinator, wait for a showing of a sex trafficking documentary to end at Central Lakes College in Brainerd before answering audience questions on Wednesday. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
From Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, Naomi Nelson (left), central Minnesota regional navigator, Kate LePage, Saving Grace case manager, Kathy Sauve, housing, youth and family resources director, and Molly Koop, Saving Grace program coordinator, wait for a showing of a sex trafficking documentary to end at Central Lakes College in Brainerd before answering audience questions on Wednesday. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

The Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza is the largest charitable ice fishing contest, and the family-fun event annually attracts anglers and spectators from far and wide.

But Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota is worried that wherever there are crowds, there is potential for sex trafficking, including the Jan. 27 gathering on Gull Lake in Crow Wing County.

"Coming up is the ice fishing tournament, and we know that anytime there is an influx of people coming to the area-we have a lot of resorts in the summer-it oftentimes will heighten the demand for sex trafficking," said Naomi Nelson of LSS.

Free screenings of "I Am Jane Doe," a documentary related to Backpage and Craigslist, were hosted by LSS's Saving Grace at Central Lakes College's Chalberg Theatre.

"We had some professors that have given it as extra credit or invited their students to come during their classes to see it," Nelson said of the documentary narrated by Academy Award-nominee Jessica Chastain, who stars in the new Aaron Sorkin film "Molly's Game."

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"It's actually a story of a mother, and she's saying, 'This is not OK. My daughter was sold on Backpage.com multiple times a day, 20 times a day, to people,' so she's fighting to shut down these websites."

LSS - Saving Grace provides youths under age 18 with safe housing, helps them come up with an individualized safety and life plan, and provides basic needs to help them find safe shelter and rebuild their lives, as well as prevent other youths from being trafficked.

"Our purpose is to educate people about sex trafficking that's happening locally and around the world, and also to ask people to not just hear about it but to take action," Nelson said of the 50 people at Wednesday's afternoon showing at the college, many of whom were women.

The screenings of the documentary were followed by a question-and-answer session with housing, youth and family resources director Kathy Sauve and Saving Grace case manager Kate LePage of LSS.

"They were interested in what they could do now and how they could get involved ... and they want to know what's happening in Minnesota for the Super Bowl-what types of services are in place for victims down there," Sauve said of audience reaction to the 2017 documentary.

LePage said, "Every time we've shown the documentary, people ask what the prevalence of sex trafficking is, especially because in the 'I Am Jane Doe' documentary it's not done on victims in Minnesota, so people are wondering why are we talking about it here in rural Minnesota."

Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota is a St. Paul-based social service organization, with programs serving residents in each of the state's 87 counties.

"We know in rural Minnesota that the statistics show that 20 percent of the victims right now are boys, but when sting operations are done, boys tend to get more hits on their online ads than women do," LePage said.

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"We know that boys are victimized as well and so we're trying to change the mentality around that, that it's not just a problem for our girls in our society. We know the majority of buyers of sex are men."

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Victims of sex trafficking can get help by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or send the text HELP to 233733.
"I would say definitely in part there've been points in my life I could have been a target, so there are definitely things we see in youth today that would have put me in a position to be trafficked, so just knowing how close I could've been makes me want to fight for others," Nelson said.

Also a 24/7 youth hotline was established to connect youth survivors of sex trafficking to help, according to LSS - Saving Grace, and that number is 866-824-3770.

"We want faculty and staff to be educated, we want those that are going into new professions to also be educated about sex trafficking, so they can bring that education into the workforce, which can keep people safe," Nelson said.

According to Nelson, about 26,000 men are purchasing sex annually in the state, which is the reason she believes the demand for such services should be challenged.

"Likely, we don't want to believe that they're our friends, neighbors or coworkers that are purchasing sex, but we do know that often the demand is from 40- to 60-year-old white males who are married and have steady jobs in the state of Minnesota," Nelson said.
"Youth need to be educated in order to protect themselves and to remain safe from perpetrators. Being aware of internet safety is very important because a lot of times traffickers are reaching out on social media ... and sex trafficking is only going to stop if people quit purchasing sex."

For more information about LSS - Saving Grace and its community series about sex trafficking and exploitation in central Minnesota, call 218-824-3770, email SavingGrace@lssmn.org or visit www.lssmn.org .

Sex trafficking victim red flags

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• Lack of eye contact

• New clothing or inappropriate apparel

• Anxious, hostile, withdrawn, submissive behavior

• Bruises, scars, burn marks, tattoos

• Significantly older "boyfriend" or "daddy"

• A "sister" or "cousin" who is controlling

• Unclear or coached responses to basic questions, such as age or residence

• Unclear of whereabouts

• Loss of sense of time

• Inconsistent stories

• Cash, prepaid cards

• Motel or hotel keys

• Sex paraphernalia

• Multiple cellphones

Source: Central Minnesota Safe Harbor Team

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write articles for the Wadena Pioneer Journal weekly newspaper owned by Forum Communications Co.
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