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Improving awareness of sex trafficking: local goup addresses an issue that’s already touched Hastings

“I didn’t know about sex trafficking until I was in the middle of it.”

Those words came from Brianna, a young adult who was saved from sex trafficking before she was in too deep. Her story was part of a recent Human Trafficking Education and Awareness class hosted by the Hastings Anti-trafficking Coalition.

A daughter, a niece, a neighbor or a friend has the potential to be sex trafficked in the United States. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in five runaways are likely victims of sex trafficking.

Brianna was a high school athlete with good grades living in a rural town. The reality is that children from all backgrounds can fall victim to sex trafficking. The average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is between 12 and 14 years old, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Is our community at risk?

Officer Chris Nelson from the Hastings Police Department said it is possible that sex trafficking is happening in our community. He said “we are kidding ourselves” to think it doesn’t happen in our community because we are in a rural town.

Proof of that happened in the fall of 2015. An undercover anti-sex trafficking operation called “Operation Guardian Angel” was held at a Hastings motel. Six men were charged in connection with solicitation of minors for prostitution. The operation was conducted between Hastings Police, Minneapolis Police, St. Paul Police, Homeland Security Investigations, the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office and the Dakota County Attorney’s Office.

“At the end of the day, (the fact that) we had seven people show up to a hotel to do this is pretty telling,” Nelson said.

Only six of those seven men ended up being charged.

Nelson said there are no active or planned initiatives involving sex trafficking in the Hastings area right now, but that doesn’t mean local police aren’t concerned. Time and resources are an issue, he said.

“(Sex trafficking is) definitely something to be aware of and be sensitive to,” Nelson said.

Christine Stepan, one of the CEASE educators at the sex trafficking education event, said she isn’t sure if the Guardian Angel initiative woke the community up to the fact that sex trafficking could happen in Hastings.

“For me personally, even if there’s one young girl that might possibly be trafficked, she’s worth it to me that we could do whatever we can so that it doesn’t happen in Hastings,” Stepan said.

Educating youth

Darcy Fuchs said the coalition has tried to get educational material into the local schools in order to raise awareness among the youth. She said she thinks it is important that they are aware of sex trafficking. Unfortunately, she said, they have been unable to speak to any officials.

“I think they’re limited on resources,” Fuchs said.

Some of the adults in attendance said they don’t understand why more information couldn’t be in schools. One parent made the point that if kids can access the internet, they should be aware of sex trafficking. One woman suggested doing an awareness class about trafficking after school. Another person said the sex trafficking awareness could act similar to sex education; a student would come home with a permission slip for the parent to sign and sex trafficking awareness could then be taught in the classroom.

“Knowledge is key, knowledge and education is key,” Fuchs said. “If they don’t know, they can’t do anything.”

Prevention

There are four steps to take in prevention of sex trafficking. The first step is to know what sex trafficking means. Sex trafficking is when someone uses force, fraud or coercion to cause a commercial sex act with an adult or causes a minor to commit a commercial sex act.

The second step is to know the signs of sex trafficking. Some of these signs may include: a minor in the company of a controlling third party; detachment or sudden isolation from majority of family and friends; noticeable change in dress, jewelry, hair, or nails without explainable source of income; sudden presence of older boyfriend, tattoo with a name that is not his or her own, or is reluctant to explain; or change in grades and attendance at school.

Step three is to not be afraid to tell someone and step four is to take action now. Report it to a police officer or other anti-trafficking service. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline is available to answer calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 888-373-7888. The Lewis House, one of two local shelters part of 360 Communities, provides safe housing and will provide emergency shelter to all sex-trafficking victims in Dakota County. For a 24-hour hotline, call 651-405-1500. To report information about a missing child or suspected child sexual exploitation, call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 800-843-5678 or visit their cyber tipline at www.cyber tipline.com.

Michelle Wirth

Michelle Wirth graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2013 with a degree in journalism and web design. She worked as a web content editor for a trade association before coming to the Hastings Star Gazette in 2016.

(651) 319-4503
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