Forum held on the serious problem of human trafficking

Joy Friedman was raped when she was 15 years old. Although she escaped from the home where she was held captive for more than 24 hours, it took her 22 years to get away from the grasps of men who profited from her being forced to strip for or have sex with multiple men.

Joy Friedman, Breaking Free program director, said that traffickers, also called pimps, recruit children at bus stops, malls, libraries and online. Photos by Eric Hagen

Joy Friedman, Breaking Free program director, said that traffickers, also called pimps, recruit children at bus stops, malls, libraries and online. Photos by Eric Hagen

Today, Friedman is the program director of Breaking Free, a non-profit based in St. Paul that helps 400-500 women and girls every year escape sexual exploitation through advocacy  and helping them find housing and education.

But she still bears emotional scars from being a victim from the age of 15 to 37. Friedman said as she took the Hanson Boulevard exit off Highway 10 to go to Coon Rapids High School for a May 29 forum on human trafficking, it suddenly came back to her that she was driving through an area where one of her pimps had sold her.

At the community forum, Friedman sat side-by-side with people who are responsible for capturing or prosecuting human traffickers and protecting children from becoming victims. The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, Anoka County Attorney’s Office, Anoka-Hennepin School District and Coon Rapids Police Department participated in the two-hour forum.

Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart implored the crowd of more than 250 people to, “Keep being vocal for all the things you heard tonight. Keep talking about this issue. Take it to the water cooler.”

When asked what the public can do to make a difference, Friedman said, “number one is to wake up.” Breaking Free was founded in 1996 and the problem has been going on long before that.

Whether asked out loud or anonymously through a text message, many questions were asked, including by some high school female students. Karrie Schaaf, Anoka-Hennepin School District’s homeless youth and families liaison, said there will likely be another community forum this fall and hopefully more education in the schools. She encouraged everyone to contact school board members to request that students be educated about this topic.

It became clear to the community members at this forum that trafficking is just the modern-day term for a problem that has gone on for many years and not just in other countries or in the core of large American metropolitan areas.

The men and women selling these victims or paying to have sex with them have many racial and social backgrounds.

“A big pimp isn’t going to walk in with a feather cap and a Cadillac, big jewels all over him and a long gold necklace and he’s not always black, which everyone thinks that. It’s a stereotype,” Friedman said. “I’m going to send a kid just like you into a library to study next to you if I’m a pimp because I know you’re not going to talk to the big bad wolf. I’m also going to send a female if I’m trying to recruit a female because you’re likely to talk to a young lady who looks like you before you talk to me.”

Many of these victims are between the ages of 12 and 14. In Minnesota alone, it is estimated that 8,000 to 12,000 kids are trafficked every day. Adult women along with young boys are also victims.

Stuart said the $9.5 billion generated by human trafficking in the U.S. only trails narcotics, but is catching up because there are fewer resources devoted to fighting sexual exploitation and the same person can be sold again and again. According to the Polaris Project & Breaking Free, the average number of times a day a victim is forced to have sex is 20 to 48.

“We’re talking about modern day slavery,” Stuart said.

More than 250 people came to Coon Rapids High School May 29 for a forum on how serious of a problem human trafficking is, including in Anoka County.

More than 250 people came to Coon Rapids High School May 29 for a forum on how serious of a problem human trafficking is, including in Anoka County.

Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors used to arrest and charge prostitutes. Coon Rapids Police Chief Brad Wise now does not want to even hear the word, “prostitute … because it diminishes the victims.”

Wise shared the story of how Brittany Clardy at the age of 18 “unwittingly and naively victimized herself” by posting an advertisement of herself on Backpage.com. The man she met allegedly murdered her in Brooklyn Park with a hammer and stuffed her body in a car that was later recovered in Columbia Heights. The accused killer, Alberto Palmer, pled not guilty in March and is set to go on trial in September.

Wise is disgusted that HBO aired a television show about prostitution and that there is a website that offers reviews of these girls and women and has 20,000 paying members. He shook his head as he scrolled through www.backpage.com that showed girls for sale in or near the city of Eagan. He pointed out that no Coon Rapids victims were listed. He said his department makes a point of “attacking the ads.” If they see a Coon Rapids person being sold, they intervene.

But if  these websites disappeared, another would just take its place. And when one person asked why a blogger could post a column online demanding that prostitution be legalized, the answer is that the First Amendment grants free speech, even if it makes no sense.

There have been new laws to combat the problem of human trafficking. According to Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo, the Safe Harbor Law treats sexually exploited children under the age of 16 through a court diversion program rather than sending them to a juvenile detention facility and it increases fines for “johns,” – the word used to describe  people who pay for sex..

Palumbo said educating these “johns” is just as important as helping the victims and prosecuting the traffickers. Friedman said Breaking Free has a program for “johns.” In Ramsey County, there has only been a 2 percent recidivism rate for those whohave been educated about how damaging their behavior is. Some have even made donations to Breaking Free.

One person asked what can be done to combat trafficking during Super Bowl week, which will be coming to Minnesota in 2018. Cmdr. Brian Podany said the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office is already working with local law enforcement agencies, the FBI and the Gerald Vick Human Trafficking Task Force to prepare for this week.

“Anytime there is a major event that comes to town whether it is a convention or a sporting event, we see a substantial increase in trafficking,” Podany said.

Statistics are hard to track for human trafficking, which can also include forced labor, but the majority of the victims are female.

“One hundred percent of them are someone’s daughter,” Friedman said.

Eric Hagen is at eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

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