Reports of human trafficking to a national helpline in the U.S. jumped 13-percent last year, a spike that’s also alarming authorities in Minnesota. Most of those cases involved sex trafficking.
But it doesn’t surprise Patti Larsen, a resident of Duluth, Minn. and a sex trafficking survivor. She says it’s very easy for adolescents and teenagers to become vulnerable to traffickers, especially with a lack of support around them.
“I did well in high school. In my senior high, I had really had low self-esteem. I look back at pictures now, I was so thin and I felt so huge and ugly and horrible,” she said.
In fact, Larsen lost her childhood when, as an elementary school student, she was sexually abused by a white, male teacher. He instructed her to perform oral sex on him over and over.
“That’s when PTSD started because I don’t remember anything in my life before the fifth grade,” she said.
That set her up to be trafficked as a teenager. She sometimes used drugs to escape her life. But at age 56, she’s turned a corner.
“It hasn’t been until recently that I actually feel beautiful as a woman.”
Investigator Kelly Haffield has been trying to crack sex trafficking cases for the Fond Du Lac Police Department for the past year. Hard data is difficult to obtain. In addition, many victims do not come forward because they are unprotected from prosecution (if they are adults).
But along with others trying to build cases on traffickers, Haffield, who currently leads the Tribes United Against Sex Trafficking Task Force, says they face a big problem.
“I think it is at a crisis level. We’re working two cases now, and the stories are, they’re heartbreaking. It does tell me this is a big, big issue.”
A blend of historical and inherited trauma, poverty, drug addiction, family separation and neglect put Native women even more at risk of being trafficked.
In Minnesota, buyers are predominately white, middle-aged, married men. They typically travel for sex. Most do not know the girls are being trafficked. Part of the appeal for them of buying sex is the power that comes with it.
The state has created a network that provides services to victims of sexual violence. Mel Alvar works in the network for the northern region, as part of Program to Aid Victims of Sexual Assault. In just the past three years, she’s seen 100 confirmed sex trafficking cases in which the victims were under the age of 18.
“The hardest part for the victim is coming forward. Where the trafficker is their intimate partner and they feel like it was all their idea. And it doesn’t matter what age they are… They don’t see it as exploitation.”
But age does matter in the criminal justice system. In 2014, the MN Safe Harbor Law made it illegal to criminalize sexually exploited minors, where prostitution is otherwise a crime. But no such “safe harbor” exists for women over 18. Reporting their trafficker would also be reporting themselves. Nicole Matthews of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition said that issue prevents many adult victims from coming forward – especially Native women.
“There’s just a huge level of invisibility of women and Native women. There are certain women in our communities who are deemed throwaways, and we don’t put much value on their lives.
She co-authored a study on prostitution and trafficking of Native women in the state called “Garden of Truth.” Out of 105 women surveyed, about half had been sexually trafficked. Nearly 80 percent of the women had been sexually abused as children by at least four people. More than 90 percent wanted a way out of prostitution. And nearly all were or had been homeless.
“We can spend the rest of our lives to help women heal their mind, body, spirits, and if we don’t start addressing who is buying and selling Native women, we’re not going to go anywhere. We’ll just be spinning our wheels.”
In Cloquet, Minn., Sheila Lamb is trying to raise awareness in her small city. She ran a successful campaign for city council this past fall.
“As I’ve been out door-knocking in my campaign, I’ve been talking to teachers and social workers who are saying, ‘Hey I’m seeing cases now of this going on, too.’ And not that long ago, you didn’t worry about your children walking four blocks here to the library.”
She said professionals working within the local school system have already identified young girls who are likely being groomed for trafficking.
Lamb said she plans to work towards creating a place where young people can go after school.
If trafficking can reach her small city of 12,000 people, she reasoned, it can happen anywhere.