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KIMT News 3 – In late June, we brought you the story of two women with histories linked to the world of sex trafficking. We met Joy Friedman, who had worked all over the country in “the life.” She tells us she felt trapped because she thought there was no way out, but now, she’s helping other women who have experienced similar things. We also introduced you to Vednita Carter, a woman who says her experiences in the sex industry changed her life, and those memories led her to start up the nonprofit group “Breaking Free”, which works to serve those women and girls impacted by sex trafficking. Vednita says “We can only end prostitution if we can stop people from buying women and girls, and so we’re trying to close down a huge industry and multibillion dollar industry and so that’s going to take some work.” But in part two of this special Covering Community investigative report, we’re digging deeper, and talking about what’s being done to combat sex trafficking, not only from an advocate stand point but from law enforcement as well as defenders of the law.
Sister Anne Walch is with the Sisters of Saint Francis in Rochester, and she says she is not afraid to talk about the harsh realities of sex trafficking. And that gets her some strange looks at times. “At first when we come up that’s the same question we get is why would you be talking about human trafficking, you haven’t been involved in human trafficking but the important thing is we try to raise awareness.” Sister Anne and her fellow Rochester Franciscan sisters took on the issue about 2 years ago after evaluating what needs they saw in their community.
They wanted to focus on those living on the fringes, especially women and children, and they found themselves on the streets to see what others knew about the issue of trafficking. That grassroots effort is paying off. The sisters now speak to full auditoriums and let people know what is happening right in Rochester and Minnesota.
That effort to raise awareness is far reaching, in fact it even touched Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem, when the sisters invited him to a panel discussion on sex trafficking. Ostrem says “I remember thinking back at the time a couple things, one; it’s really not happening here so why are they interested and why is a group of nuns interested in human trafficking. I was really fascinated by that.”
Since that invitation Ostrem says he’s seen a growing number of cases referred to his office, because more people are speaking up in the community. There’s also been another shift in Minnesota. In many metro areas, you will not hear the women and children involved in the sex trafficking world referred to as prostitutes.
Ostrem says “There’s this paradigm shift that you have to start thinking of it as trafficking, trafficking of human beings and nobody thinks that that’s right. So we just have to start talking about it in a different language instead of saying prostitutes.”
He is working with other County Attorneys in the state’s bigger cities, to look at those women as victims, instead of criminals.
He tells us, if a juvenile is caught, that person is treated as a child in need of protective services, and if it’s an adult, while she still may face some charges, she’s also given more access to help. Instead, the Olmsted County Attorney’s office takes a strong stance against the pimps and johns and works to make sure those men have a record.
He says if you eliminate the demand, then you don’t even have an industry. “This is someone who’s buying and selling a human being that’s not right, we ended slavery years ago this is a form of slavery.”
One of the issues that has been challenging for those looking to combat sex trafficking is the high-tech way the industry runs. On-the-street solicitation is becoming rarer, and instead it’s going online, where ads can be put up and taken down quickly. And that makes it a crime that can happen anywhere.
Ostrem says it can be hard to catch. “If I were to say we have one challenge it’s that we don’t have the law enforcement resources to really attack this.”
That’s also been the challenge in Iowa, where statistics on human trafficking are difficult to come by and an organized effort to really go after sex trafficking hasn’t been in place, until now.
Mike Ferjak is a Senior Criminal Investigator with the Iowa Department of Justice, and is a big part of a new initiative launched late last year out of the Iowa Attorney General’s office.
The goal is to identify the trafficking issue in the state, and promote awareness and education. Ferjak says “We believe there is a significant amount of trafficking that passes through the state of Iowa, if you stop and consider the fact that Iowa is connected by I-80 and I-35 which leads to all four borders of the country we are the crossroads of the country.”
And he says young people are particularly in danger of being forced into the trade. “What we know at least about domestic sex trafficking is that the minors are usually already on the run from someone and so they’re out on the street, they’re vulnerable, they have no money, no support, and what statistics will show you is in the first 24-72 hours they will be approached by someone to engage in commercial sex trafficking.”
Ferjak is also working closely with the Department of Public Safety on this new initiative, also called the Human Trafficking Enforcement and Prosecution Initiative. Those in the Department of Criminal Investigation and State Patrol are also key players.
Gerard Meyers with the DCI knows it’s time to act and wants this initiative to be a solid first step. “We hope that’s just a building block towards a real wide ranging human trafficking initiative, not only to protect those in Iowa, but to protect those who might be transported through our state.”
A key piece of the plan will involve the Iowa State Patrol, troopers who work each day on the state’s major roadways, and their eyes and ears could be the first to pick up on a bad situation.
Captain Curt Henderson will be developing and implementing a training program for the troopers, but he says spotting a possible trafficking situation will also be something the hotel and travel industries will need to be on board with. “Hopefully we can raise the level of awareness to the point where we’re putting enough light on this that we drive these folks out of Iowa.”
Meanwhile, there are also talks right now about shifting some of the laws in Iowa that would give more protection to the women and young people involved in sex trafficking.
For example, treating them more like victims rather than criminals. Right now prostitution is an aggravated misdemeanor.
In Minnesota- the Safe Harbor Act was passed by Governor Mark Dayton in 2011, but will go into effect in August of 2014. It will treat sex-trafficked adolescents as victims of crime in need of support instead of criminals.
Here are some links for more information on this issue in both states:
The National Hotline number can be used to call to report trafficking or seek help: 1-888-373-7888 or text BeFree (233733)
If you are concerned or would like to make a report about sex trafficking, you’re urged to call your local and state law enforcement agencies.