FRIDELY, Minn. – (Nov. 16, 2017) – Human trafficking is modern day slavery, happening everywhere in the United States. The victims can be any nationality, age, socioeconomic status, or gender. Trafficking is a highly profitable crime.
Worldwide, human trafficking is a $150 billion a year business. It takes many forms, including sex trafficking, forced labor and domestic servitude. In Anoka County, Sheriff James Stuart and County Attorney Tony Palumbo are working to educate the public on the growing problem right in their own backyard.
“We want the public to know and to be aware of some of the problem we are seeing here on the law enforcement side,” Palumbo said.
“We know that we’ve been taking this battle on for many years, however we need more eyes and ears out there, I tell individuals, ‘when you’re out in the community and you see something that just doesn’t feel right, there’s a reason for it, act on it, when in doubt call us out,’ and that’s kind of the message we want to get out to people,” Stuart said.
It is estimated that 1 out of every 6 runway youth are sex trafficking victims, a statistic that is proving true in Anoka County.
“A large percentage of our homeless youth are trading sex for food, clothing, shelter and they are cow-chopping, they are going various places and they find that it’s a method of currency, so-to-speak,” Palumbo explained.
What many victims believe will be a quick fix to their problems ends up being a lifestyle that is hard to escape.
“Once you get into that life, [it is] very very difficult to get out,” Palumbo continued.
“The reality is, when you’re 11 to 14-years-old, no matter what we’re talking about, you’re not going to be making good decisions, and so when you have somebody who is a master manipulator and who knows how to manipulate anyone, much less a child’s mind, they’re going to find ways to entice you, they’re going to find ways to lure you in and get you to lower your defenses and whether that’s through gifts, and eventually getting you hooked on narcotics where they’re your provider, by painting a picture where you can’t trust your family, even before you could,” Stuart said.
“Threats that are being made keep these kids hostage and the worst threat of all is, if you try and leave, we’ll go after your little sister, we’ll go after your family, etc, and it holds them in,” Palumbo said.
“They are going to masterfully create a situation where the trafficked victims look to their trafficker as their boyfriend, as their caretaker, as somebody who cares about them and it’s not unlike a domestic violence circle where they eventually start to believe it’ll get better and they do care about them and so we constantly see that the kids are caught up in that lifestyle,” Stuart said.
Those in attendance at the human trafficking forum received several tips on what to look for but it comes down to trusting your instincts.
“I think the average citizen likes to think that if there’s an issue, we’re going to see it on the news because somebody has been violently abducted, because somebody’s been pulled off their front step or taken from a mall and so we’ll know who to look for and we’ll know who the suspects are by vehicle descriptions and things like that but the reality is, they’re much more often enticed into the lifestyle, they’re tricked into the lifestyle and before they know it, they’re caught up in a lifestyle that they don’t know how to get out of and so that’s what this is about is helping people understand what to look for,” Stuart said.
“The interesting thing about it is it takes on many different forms, many different looks, sometimes it is individuals being held against their will in a basement and other times they might look like just a group of kids walking through a mall, but they’ve been so brainwashed and convinced that they need to comply with their trafficker that they’re not going to go to the police, we’ve been painted to be the bad guy, so why would they approach us even though we have their best interest in mind.”
Another big ally in the fight against human trafficking are parents. But in order to make a difference parents will need to step up and take on some difficult conversations with their kids.
“I think what you can do is talk to your kids,” Palumbo said. “Find out what’s going on in their lives or their friend’s lives, we’re going to have tips tonight for parents to understand what to look for example, if all of a sudden there’s a new older boyfriend that doesn’t come around the house but is around, all of a sudden your 12 or 13-year-old is getting expensive gifts, if you see your 12-year old getting an iPhone X that’s a $1,000 phone, all of a sudden out of the blue? Maybe you should be asking questions, what’s going on? Because not all the kids that are in this life are homeless, there are some that are living in houses and people don’t know it.”
“One of the things that I that I typically recommend for parents is to parent, and I know that sounds silly but a lot of times we see parents that are more focused on being a buddy to their kid and a partner to their kid rather than being a parent to their kid and sometimes it’s a hard thing to do, you don’t want to make your 11-year-old daughter show you her phone and what’s on the phone and yet that’s one of the key ways they’re getting access to kids is through social media and some of these other ways now-a-days, so we need to parent first and foremost and we need to have the parents be engaged, have those tough talks, have those communications and help your kids in what to look for,” Stuart said.
Cases of human trafficking are often hard to investigate and prosecute.
“The struggle is that the complexity of these cases, they use prepaid credit cards and throw-away phones and they’re in a different state each day sometimes and at least every couple of days, moving different locations and using different websites and different names and so it becomes a very very complex case and sometimes can take six, seven months to get a decent case and following someone around state to state with a lot of different subpoenas and warrants and those kind of things so you can imagine the complexity of these cases and there just quite simply aren’t enough law enforcement resources to go after these cases effectively because if it were that simple as identifying them, I’m confident those that are trained in these cases could identify hundreds, tonight before we’re done with this presentation,” Stuart said.
The best way for law enforcement to stop human trafficking are prevention efforts like these type of public education events and getting victims to tell there stories without fear of prosecution.
“I have joined with other prosecutors in this area in treating the under-aged victims of prosecution as victims,” Palumbo said. “We’re not targeting them for prosecution so number one we try and let them know, let the message get out, [if] you come forward, just because you’ve been in the life doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be prosecuted. First and foremost we want to draw that line saying, ‘we want to help you out to begin with,’ what we’re trying to do in law enforcement certainly is to make sure that kids know adults do care for them and we are resourced to help them, should they want to get out,”
In the first six months of 2017, 37 cases of human trafficking were reported in Minnesota.