Minnesota: A human trafficking battleground

12:14 AM, Feb 16, 2012   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The statistics are startling.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has estimated that about 100,000 American children, with an average age between 12 and 14, are drawn into prostitution each year.

The FBI ranks Minnesota as the nation's 13th largest center for human trafficking of children.

Recently, a national group called the Protected Innocence Initiative, analyzed all states' existing laws on domestic trafficking and gave Minnesota a 'C' rating.

Prostitution and human trafficking are alive and well in Minnesota. KARE 11 has delved into the issue and the efforts to fight an age old problem that appears to be growing.

The Issue

During rush hour in the Twin Cities, and as most people end their work day, the prostitutes of south Minneapolis are starting theirs.

"You have to go out when the girls are out and the girls are out when the johns are out," says Joy Friedman with Breaking Free, a Twin Cities victim advocacy organization. "It's dinner time and they have a quickie before they go home so to speak."

Joy is part of the Breaking Free outreach team, which tries to stay connected to prostitutes and get them help.

"They know my car. That's Miss Joy's green machine," says Joy.

And Joy knows this place well - the streets, the customers, the game.

"I actually used to walk these streets," says Joy.

For more than 20 years, Joy was a victim of prostitution herself and is now committed to saving others. We joined her one night during her outreach efforts. We watched and listened as Joy approached well known prostitutes to let them know she was there for them and checking on their welfare.

Joy checks for new girls and girls she knows, like Lisa. Joy gave Lisa personal hygiene items and made sure she's okay. Lisa is a drug addict who has tried time and time again to get off the streets. Joy assures her she will always be there for her.

"We are here to let them know that someone is here that cares about them and that if and when they are ready to get out they can call us," says Joy.

Prostitution exists in the Twin Cities - a lot of prostitution - with pimps and johns preying on young girls promising them love, money and drugs.

"Prostitution doesn't discriminate. These are our kids out here that are throw-aways, that we have just said to hell with them and that's not ok," says Joy.

Antoinette Hollins endured 27 years of abuse on the streets. She carries her old driver's license as a reminder of what she's been through.

"He hit me in my jaw and the impact was so hard that he broke both sides," says Antoinette. "I cried out to God and told him I had enough."

Antoinette got out with the help of people who believed in her. She's now drug free, a grandmother and proof there is hope for so many who feel hopeless.

"In my prostitution I reached out for affection, looking for love in the wrong places and that's what these girls are looking for is someone to love them," says Antoinette.

The newest prostitution trend is online where young girls sell themselves to so-called sugar daddies to pay for things like college tuition. You can read the pimp manual online and learn how to do it yourself or sit back, some say, and order a girl as fast as a pizza.

Sgt. John Bandemer is with the St. Paul Police Department's human trafficking unit. Prostitution becomes trafficking when girls are coerced or forced into the lifestyle by someone else. They're often transported across state lines and underage.

"These young girls today are becoming easy prey for that trafficker," says Bandemer.

Bandemer's team trolls websites that advertise prostitutes. Recently, over a 24-hour period, they found 500 ads, selling sex for money, in and around the Twin Cities.

"Almost every suburb I can think of, we've seen ads for prostitution," says Bandemer.

Along with homegrown prostitution and domestic trafficking, Minnesota continues to be part of an international human trafficking pipeline.

The FBI ranks Minnesota as one of the nation's 13 largest centers for sex trafficking of children. Authorities say part of the reason is our proximity to the border, a large port in Duluth, and the booming mail-order bride business. It can be easy access for sophisticated cartels bringing in girls and kids, fetching $400,000 a head for sex or forced labor.

"They are coming from around the whole world," says Linda Miller, an attorney with the Civil Society, which helps victims escape, get help and then testify against their trafficker. She has seen some 700 victims since 2005. Many are children and some are as young as five years old and younger.

"That is a trend we're seeing. The traffickers are using other children to solicit children," says Miller.

"The type of men out there purchasing sex are always looking for something new, something fresh and a lot of times that's a young girl," says Bandemer.

And there have been prosecutions.

In 2010, 29 people were indicted in a sex trafficking ring allegedly run by Minneapolis-based Somali gangs, recruiting victims under age 14.  Last month, a Woodbury man was sentenced for sex trafficking a 15-year-old and a Minneapolis woman was indicted for sex trafficking of a minor she advertised online.

While international trafficking is on the rise, the most visible and prolific problem continues at home as part of the normalization of sexual exploitation, victim advocates say.

"It was like one of those feelings that you are having a dream but actually your dream becomes real," says Julie, a former prostitute who was lured in through strip clubs at age 17. She asked us to conceal her identity, detailing how she was kidnapped by a pimp and sold for sex from state to state.

"We just travelled everywhere and we decided what states we would make more money in," says Julie.

Today, Julie is turning her life around and hoping her story inspires other young girls to get out before it's too late.

"I just have a big passion about broken hearts and I just don't want anyone to feel what I felt," says Julie.

Fighting the Problem

Victim advocates say an approach to solving the problem is to go after the demand and hold johns accountable. Joy Friedman of Breaking Free says if there are no johns, there will not be any prostitution. Breaking Free runs a John school and there are many other new community based programs to help men with sex and porn addictions.

The St. Paul Police Department is one of the only departments in the state with officers dedicated to trafficking investigations. They are working on new ways to tackle the problem and have the kind of expertise they plan to use to help other law enforcement agencies in training statewide

There are many other organizations in the Twin Cities fighting the prostitution and human trafficking problem. They include: The Women's Foundation, which is giving out grants to agencies fighting trafficking. There is also the Institute for Trafficked, Exploited & Missing Persons, Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center and The Family Partnership.

In addition, several Minnesota prosecutors have made a pledge to not charge juvenile prostitutes with a crime, but rather treat them as victims. The Ramsey County Runaway Intervention Project was created to identify and address the needs of young runaway girls.

Governor Dayton signed Safe Harbor into law last year, a law that treats commercially sexually exploited young people as victims in need of protection, not criminals.

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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