Group shines light on sex trafficking; Mission 21 trying to raise awareness of criminal industry

Sex trafficking is commonly thought of as a problem in places outside the United States or in big cities.

But according to members of Mission 21, a Rochester-based non-profit organization that provides resources and restoration services to child victims of sex trafficking, it is present in every city and county.

“I was first made aware of the problem (in my community) when a brothel was raided down the street from my house in 2007,” said Lia Culbert of Austin, a Mission 21 community education volunteer, during a presentation Saturday morning at the Austin Public Library to spread awareness of this growing problem.

Sex trafficking is defined as the use of force, fraud or coercion to control a victim and make them engage in commercial sex acts against his or her will.

According to recent studies, human trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in the world, behind drug trafficking, accounting for an estimated $32 billion a year.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children conservatively estimates that 100,000 children per year are exploited in the sex industry. The average age for minors involved in sex trafficking is 13 years, but Mission 21 has helped victims as young as nine.

The FBI named the Twin Cities among the top 13 U.S. cities for incidences of child prostitution. According to the Minnesota Women’s Foundation, 45 underage girls are sold for sex via the internet or escort services on any given night in Minnesota. An estimated 213 a month are sold for sex at least five times a day in Minnesota.

“Traffickers in Minnesota sell these children through the internet, in hotels, at truck stops, at strip clubs, massage parlors, on the streets, in brothels, and at porn production houses,” said Kimber Schletty, Mission 21 Board vice president.

“They don’t just promise their victims money. Some do it in exchange for protection, ‘love,’ a sense of adventure, or shelter.”

Traffickers target youth who are vulnerable, particularly runaways, undocumented or temporary visa holders, physically disabled, poor, or those who have suffered abuse in the home.

Social media is a popular method of recruiting children. About 71 percent of children recruited for sex trafficking are recruited by someone they know, according to Mission 21.

Adults are also vulnerable. In April, a 60 year-old Chinese woman was arrested for prostitution during a sting operation of the Serenity Asian Massage Parlor in Austin. The woman was a victim of sex trafficking and was sent to a Safe Harbor program in Rochester.

Minnesota has taken steps to combat sex trafficking, particularly regarding children. The state does not require proof of force, fraud or coercion when dealing with minors. Minnesota also has Safe Harbor legislation that defines sexually exploited children as youth in need of services and ensures they will not be subject to criminal charges for what they have done.

Shared Hope International recently gave Minnesota an “A” grade for its efforts to fight sex trafficking, up from a “C” in 2011.

Mission 21 offers talks and information to those who want to know more.

“Through our community education team, we go out and do a variety of presentations,” Schletty said. “We’re willing to put up booths to provide information as well as do talks and commercials on what actually is sex trafficking and speak to how it affects your particular community. In addition, our direct services team has prevention and intervention curriculum. We would love to bring the prevention curriculum (to Austin) and speak to youth, both male and female, that may be at risk, regarding awareness of sex trafficking. “

Schletty said the material is appropriate for ages 13 and up.

If you know of anyone that is a victim of sex trafficking, call local law enforcement or the Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

For more information, call Mission 21 at 507-208-4600 or visit www.mission21mn.org.

How to recognize signs of sex trafficking

According to the Shared Hope International, these are some red flags to look out for if a child is the victim of sex trafficking:

• Signs of physical abuse, such as burn marks, bruises or cuts;

• Unexplained absences from school;

• Less appropriately dressed than before;

• Sexualized behavior;

• Overly tired in class;

• Withdrawn, distracted or depressed;

• Brags about making or having lots of money;

• Displays expensive clothes, accessories or shoes;

• New tattoo (which are often used by pimps to “brand” victims). Tattoos of a name, money symbol or barcode could indicate trafficking;

• Older boyfriend or new friends with a different lifestyle;

• Talks about wild parties or invites other students to them (recruiters will sometimes use kids to recruit other kids); and

• Shows signs of gang affiliation

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