Human trafficking. In Minnesota. In St. Cloud.

Categories: Around the Diocese

Regional organizations, nonprofit groups, nuns and police are shining light on an oft-hidden problem in our area

Jan. 31, 2014, edition
By Jennifer Janikula

A 28-year-old man met a 15-year-old runaway girl. He beat her, raped her and forced her into prostitution.

page1girlFor more than a year, he purchased Internet ads to promote a multi-city hotel tour where the girl traded sex for cash with several men each day.

To keep her compliant, he used tactics like burning her with a cigar and smacking her in the head with a glass bottle.

The man — who has the words “Pimp Life” tattooed across his stomach — kept all of the money, which he used to rent an apartment and to buy a sports car.

Human trafficking exists in many forms, but this true story represents a fairly typical scenario. This multi-city prostitution tour did not take place in Russia, Thailand or even New York.

The stops on the young girl’s horrific journey included the Minnesota towns of Richfield, Duluth and more than 80 nights in two St. Cloud hotels.

A report prepared by the Minnesota Office of Justice program and the Minnesota Statistical Analysis Center summarizes human trafficking as “a crime that exploits people for profit and deprives them of their basic human rights.”

Minnesota law defines two categories of exploitation: labor trafficking and sex trafficking. Labor trafficking commonly involves involuntary domestic service (i.e. nannies and housekeepers), enslaved migrant workers and child labor. Sex trafficking includes recruiting, harboring or obtaining prostitutes as well as receiving profits from prostitution.

Although the underground nature of both crimes makes it difficult to gather accurate data, the report showed the vast majority of human trafficking victims in Minnesota were exploited for sex rather than labor. Most of the victims were women who were legal residents of the United States, trafficked domestically.

It’s not a choice

“Human Trafficking is modern day slavery — the buying of another human being by force, fraud or coercion,” said Rebecca Kotz, co-founder of Students Against Trafficking and Sexploitation at St. Cloud State University.

page6girlKotz, inspired in part by an internship with Catholic Charities, uses her student group to raise awareness and take action against all forms of trafficking, prostitution and pornography. She said the biggest myth about sex trafficking and prostitution is that the women choose to participate.

“It’s not really a matter of free choice — it’s a result of repeated trauma and exploitation of vulnerability,” Kotz explained.

“Eighty-five to 95 percent of trafficked women were sexually abused as children and 90 percent say they want to escape but feel they can’t.”

Why do the women feel trapped in a life of commercial sexual exploitation?

Why didn’t the 15- year-old girl escape from that hotel room in St. Cloud?

Survivors of human trafficking describe countless, giant obstacles that block the road to freedom. Many victims are enslaved by their parents, husbands or boyfriends.

They often develop drug addictions.

Most are abused mentally and/or physically until they believe this life is their only option.

Normal life unknown

Gracemarie Tellone Brown, a human trafficking survivor and chair of the Central Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force, said, “Women will not step forward to leave the life unless we can guarantee safe passage from where they are to where they need to be.”

Tellone Brown explained that many sex trafficking victims have been raised in the life from the age of 12 or 13 and don’t really realize they are victims. “These women do not self-identify as victims. We have to teach them what normal is — what their life should look like.”

As a matter of fact, current Minnesota human trafficking laws do not allow defendants to claim their victims consented to prostitution. The law assumes that a person cannot consent to sexual exploitation. It’s not a choice.

Prostitutes are victims, johns are predators

Anti-human trafficking advocates have changed the entire vocabulary associated with prostitution in the last 10 to 15 years: pimps became traffickers, “johns” became predators and prostitutes became victims. This mental shift dramatically changed the way law enforcement investigates prostitution.

“All underage people are considered victims,” said Lieutenant Jerry Edblad from the St. Cloud Police Department. “Even adult prostitutes are looked at like more of a victim.”

Breaking Free, a St. Paul-based organization that supports survivors of sex trafficking, changed the dialogue, Edblad said. He appreciates the way advocates study the issue and educate law enforcement, legislators and the public from the survivors’ perspective.

“Now we focus on those trying to buy these women, we educate hotel and motel owners, and we connect the women with support to help them get out of the life,” Edblad said.

Building a coalition

Much of the education and advocacy in the St. Cloud area started with an event at Hands Across the World, a non-profit organization co-founded by Brianda Cediel and Franciscan Sister Tonie Rausch.

They hosted an informational meeting about Human Trafficking in April 2012. The meeting created a snowball effect that gave momentum to the work of many local people.

“We wanted to build a coalition of people to prevent human trafficking and protect our children,” explained Ciedel, a parishioner of St. Mary’s Cathedral.

The event inspired Rebecca Kotz to create her anti-trafficking student group and encouraged Tellone Brown to create Gracemarie’s Song, a local non-profit that provides support for women who want to escape the sex industry.

The religious communities in the diocese were also inspired to educate themselves and others about the horrors of human trafficking.

Benedictine Sister Kathryn Casper, sees human trafficking as a social justice issue.

“I’m surprised how little people know about human trafficking,” Sister Kathryn said. “People have no idea about how many are enslaved in prostitution. The perception is that they want to be prostitutes.”

Jeff Odendahl, coordinator of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation for the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, also attended the human trafficking session at Hands Across the World.

“The meeting changed our understanding of the issue,” Odendahl said.

“Prostitution and pornography are social ills that exist right here in our community and very young people are forced to participate.”

The Franciscans hired an intern to prepare a slide show to educate the sisters.

“As a community the Franciscans want to make people aware of human trafficking and its direct impact on people in the diocese,” Odendahl said. “We continue to be in denial as a society.”

The FBI ranked Minneapolis the 13th largest hub for minor sex trafficking in the nation. Trafficking operations based in the Twin Cities are quickly expanding into the suburbs and into many big and small towns along the interstate highways.

* * *

The trafficker described at the beginning of this story was arrested in Stearns County in January 2012.

He was prosecuted in Hennepin County and pled guilty to profiting from prostitution of a minor. He is currently serving a 10-year sentence at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud.

For more information about human sex trafficking in Minnesota, please visit www.breakingfree. net.

Get educated

• According to the United Nations, human trafficking generates an estimated $32 billion dollars per year worldwide and is the fastest growing black market crime in the world.

• Traffickers can be men or women, young or old.

• They come from all races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

 They target the most vulnerable people in our communities — children, runaways, the homeless, the mentally ill and the chemically dependent.

• They recruit in middle school and high school hallways, group homes, homeless shelters and on social media.

 

Resources

• St. Cloud State University Students Against Trafficking and Sexploitation: www.scsusats.webs.com

• Gracemarie’s Song and the Central Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force: 320-200-4770

• Hands Across the World: 320-260-1072, www.handsacrosstheworldmn.org.

• Breaking Free (Twin Cities organization supporting women as they break free from human trafficking): www.breakingfree.net

• Polaris Project: (A national organization advocating for and assisting victims of human trafficking): www.polaris project.org

• National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888