Minnesotans understand little about sex trafficking in their state, experts in the field said Thursday as they looked for ways to educate people.
The most basic information being distributed by anti-sex trafficking groups is that women involved in money-for-sex encounters must be considered victims, not criminal prostitutes.
The Harriet Tubman Center in Maplewood hosted about three dozen people, mostly local and state officials, with the intention of educating them and asking how to spread the message. The Maplewood facility is one of three Twin Cities Tubman centers that offer help to people facing domestic abuse, sex trafficking and other issues.
The center says one in five girls and one in 10 boys will be sex victims before becoming adults and 70 percent of those lured into sex trafficking were abused at home.
“We often see this as a big-city problem,” Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell, who used to hold that position in Hastings, told the group.
However, he said, he has found young girls involved in sex trafficking from places like Hibbing, Duluth and Rochester in his shopping malls. That does not mean, he warned, that trafficking is limited to the Twin Cities. He and state Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said trafficking is an issue all over the state.
“I suspect there are victims who live in cornfield country,” Newman said.
However, Newman said, “we don’t have the resources like the Tubman Center.” The senator said, however, he was glad to hear that Tubman, Schnell and others in the Twin Cities are willing to help greater Minnesota deal with the issue.
Newman said greater Minnesota residents need to begin paying attention. “Let’s talk about this in the open.”
Schnell and Newman said it is well known that there is a sex trafficking pipeline taking Minnesota girls to the North Dakota oilfields.
Girls are being exploited by men they consider their boyfriends, experts said Thursday, but the men really are pimps.
It has taken a long time for police and others to realize the girls are victims, Schnell said. “Sadly, often times we are unaware, sadly unaware.”
“We know these kids are not going to school; they lack good connections; often times, they do not see themselves having a safe alternative,” the chief said. “We know that these are the kids that run away a lot.”
Tubman’s Tamara Stark said signs of girls involved in trafficking include frequent doctor or nurse visits because they fear catching a sexually transmitted disease. They also may miss a lot of school.
Often, Stark said, the girls do not feel safe or wanted at home. They may get into trafficking when “approached to trade sex for a safe place to stay.”
Many do not realize they are victims, she added. “Sometimes it is more kicking and screaming” when people try to help.
In addition to educating the government officials, Tubman officials asked them how to best educate others.
State Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman, a former legislator and long-time Tubman board member, heard ideas ranging from speaking to men’s organizations to having a presence at major sports events to meeting with Boy Scout troops.
Washington County Commissioner Carla Bigham, a former state lawmaker, suggested that the county withhold motel licenses until workers are educated in how to deal with people who get rooms for sex.
State Sen. Charles Wiger, D-Maplewood, said his idea is to require education in schools “with the seeds being planted as early as possible.”