Prevention is key Human trafficking present in region

Jordan Gerard/SGH Laura Sutherland of Safe Harbor Regional Navigator from Olmsted County presented information about human trafficking on Thursday, April 19, at the Spring Grove Cinema.

The words “human trafficking” might not seem common around a small town or rural area, but the subject matter of the words sneak in and lead secret activities in youths’ lives.

Spring Grove community members attended a presentation about human trafficking last Thursday, April 19, at the Cinema. The presentation was hosted by Wilmington Lutheran Church, Spring Grove Community Education and sponsored by Thrivent Financial.

Laura Sutherland, Safe Harbor Regional Navigator from Olmsted County, presented the information. She has been a navigator for Safe Harbor for about four years and covers a 12-county area, including Houston County. She works with more than 300 youth in her client base, who are from all over Minnesota.

“Olmsted County has the third highest number of referrals,” she said. “That’s after Hennepin and St. Louis counties. What it tells us is this is absolutely happening in our region.”

Her discussion focused on exploitation through social media. The main key for prevention is for parents to be present in their children’s social media lives and have a conversation with them about safe online conversations, photos and account settings.

Though Minnesota is ranked high for sex trafficking, it is also ranked high for safe harbor laws. The state was one of the first to enact safe harbor laws and is considered a leader in that type of law. Minnesota’s definition of someone who is exploited is very broad, which provides a proactive and protective stance for youth. The law was enacted in 2014.

The definition of a sexually exploited youth is ages 24 and under, engaged in or agreed to engage in sexual conduct in exchange for one or several things: money, food, clothing, shelter, drugs, alcohol or the promise of something.

Trafficking is different from exploitation in the sense the money goes to a third party, such as a “pimp” or trafficker. Age, gender, ethnicity or being a family member does not matter in identifying traffickers. The moment anyone starts making someone uncomfortable sexually, that’s when it’s not safe, Sutherland said. 

“Our work with victims and survivors shows us most of these relationships start as friendship or romance, and then physical abuse, threats or blackmail starts and it shifts into something else over time,” Sutherland said. 

Services are provided regardless of age, though the law requires services to ages 24 and under. 

Sutherland also does a lot of prevention work in schools. Safe Harbor also provides services to people who are at high risk for exploitation.

When people often think of exploitation in exchange for money, they often think of prostitution. However, Sutherland said statistics show that’s only true for a small percentage of people. They are victims of exploitation for money.

Youth looking for shelter away from home, for reasons such as abuse or tension in the home, are often exploited in order to stay in that space.

Hospitals are proactive in asking victims if they were coerced into performing lewd conduct in order to stay. Sutherland said youth often disclose that reason.

She added drugs may be another reason for exploited youth or people.

“Once anyone starts using with regularity, it doesn’t take long for addiction to happen,” Sutherland said. “It’s about $100 to $140 for an ounce of marijuana in our area. That’s a lot of money for a youth to have.”

In too many cases like that, she continued, youth trade what they have to get their next hit, which is their body.

Sutherland said if her office receives a call about a youth who is a drug user and being exploited, they do not get them in trouble over the drug usage.

“We support them around this issue of exploitation that goes hand in hand,” she said. 

Since it’s a digital age, Sutherland covered the topic of sexting, or exchanging nude photos through social media, such as Snapchat, Instagram, or KIK.

“I haven’t been in a school yet where people don’t tell us what an issue this has become,” she said. 

It usually starts with the context of a consensual relationship between students. However, if the relationship breaks up, photos exchanged can often end up online. The photos can almost never be fully removed from the online world.

Victims are often left suffering in silence because they are embarrassed, feel guilty and “kind of screwed” because it was done with permission, Sutherland said. 

“We really discourage the sending of photos. You can’t get them back,” she said. “Youth make mistakes, and they don’t always have the best judgment, but that doesn’t give someone else the right to disseminate those photos.”

Another way to discourage sexting is letting the students know that nude photos are a creation of child pornography, and if it’s sent out, that is another charge of dissemination of pornography.

Photos found on cell phones and sent onto to other people can also be charged as a crime.

“We want them to know all the consequences,” Sutherland said. “Oftentimes, the school turns it over to law enforcement.”

Lewd photos often have negative consequences for victims, including depression, embarrassment, bullying, pressure from other people to provide similar photos, truancy and suicide. 

Students are encouraged to delete the photos if they receive it, and reach out to a safe adult. This provides support for the victim and support for the person who sent the photos out.

“Sometimes they don’t realize how serious the consequences are,” Sutherland added. “It’s a decision that could affect them the rest of their life if it’s a felony conviction.”

She also encouraged people to report things to law enforcement if they feel something is not right. Though in a small town there may be a stigma and backlash about turning people in who exchange photos, especially students, Sutherland said people have to get past that.

Houston County Sheriff Mark Inglett agreed and said they don’t want to turn children into criminals but there are consequences.

The biggest support Sutherland and her team give to victims is telling them it’s not their fault. There’s a lot of psychological manipulation involved in exploitation. Victims are groomed to feel special to the trafficker, who then want more from them like photos or to meet up.

That’s often how youth are targeted. It’s not only girls who can be trafficked; it also happens to boys.

Sutherland said if youth are old enough to have a cell phone, tablet or computer, parents should talk with their kids about safe relationships.

“It’s not healthy when it’s a secret relationship, living under a threat, being pressured or making someone uncomfortable about sex,” she said. 

She gave the example of one trafficker who considered it his job to target individuals he considered to be vulnerable based on their social media activity. Oftentimes, he watched for posts that said students were unhappy at home or having difficulties at school. Any hint of sharing emotional information and he would message the youth and start relationship building.

“People tend to bleed all over online. Traffickers are able to see what people were posting if they weren’t using privacy screens,” Sutherland said. “We like to think we live in a cyber-literate world, but not so much if people don’t use privacy screens.”

Privacy screens vary for different social media accounts, but oftentimes people need to be “friends” to see each other’s posts.

Instagram is commonly used for trafficking. The clue to finding victims for Sutherland is to see how many followers they have. If there’s 500 or more people following them, it opens up a broad world.

“It’s surprising how patient people are. Conversations can go on for months without trafficking,” Sutherland said. “It makes the victim feel good, and at this point, they trust the person. Some say they love this person.”

The trafficker becomes the most important person in the victim’s life because they “lay on a lot of love.” Parents or guardians are usually not aware of the relationship, however they need to be a safe person for the youth to go.

Other sources for trafficking include family members. Family members with addiction issues will exploit their kids to pay off a drug debt or to get more drugs.

Parties with free drugs and alcohol are another source for trafficking. It’s commonly where sexual assaults happen and are video taped. Blackmail and threats often follow.

Sutherland encouraged people to speak up if they see something that is concerning. Trafficking often happens because of ignorance and the culture of silence. But if people are right, their phone call can make all the difference.

Inglett added they’d rather get 10 calls that are nothing, rather than no calls that is something.

The sheriff’s department works together with the five police departments in the county, but no trafficking cases have been reported.

“That’s not to say it can’t happen here,” he said. “It starts with basic awareness. If you see something, know something, let us know.”

He also encouraged parents to be active in their kids’ lives, and to know who their friends are. By doing that, it’s easier for law enforcement to be proactive if a trafficking or exploitation situation arises.

“These people are good at what they do,” he said. “If we have grown adults getting conned out of money, why can’t your child be exploited? The biggest point is to know what’s going on in your kids’ lives and call us.”

Sutherland said there are several apps to monitor youth’s conversations online or to see who contacts them. However, parents need to talk to their children before using the apps or using them in secrecy.

If you or someone you know is not in a safe situation, call 911. Victim Services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 507-289-0636. To contact Sutherland, call 507-328-7279.

For more information, visit the Safe Harbor website at