Trafficked: Searching for solutions in the Northland

Category: In The News Published: Thursday, 15 January 2015 Written by Admin

Trafficking is a problem that often is clandestine and left to the shadows; now the hunt for solutions was taking place after dark, too.

A couple of the group's members are nonprofit professionals; the rest are community members. They convened on Jan. 5 for a monthly meeting of a group called MAST -- Men Against Sex Trafficking.

They met for more than an hour. Their discussion was like a campfire between them, lively and warm. They wondered aloud how they could bring the faith communities further into the fold. They discussed the diminishing returns of male promiscuity and described it as a trail of conquests leading to nowhere. They talked about real partnership with a woman and called it true love.       

Human trafficking in the North Dakota oil fields, the topic of a Forum News Service series published in the News Tribune during the past week, helped to fuel their discussion. The series was important, timely and provocative, they agreed. But the oil fields and their "man camps" in North Dakota aren't alone in the practice of trafficking girls and women for sex.

"We're feeding them our girls from Duluth," Fletcher Hinds, one member of the group, told the News Tribune.

The men in MAST could be considered progressive for the way the sins of their gender weigh on them. In a modern world lit with sexual imagery and references and supportive of a pornography industry to the tune of billions of dollars annually, the men in the small room seem rebellious in their unwillingness to accept the current norm.   

"I don't know why we're so gross or how we ever got this way," said Al Nyquist, one man who won't accept "it is what it is" for an answer.

To hear members of the group and other community leaders --with law enforcement agencies, nonprofit organizations and the county's public health and human services -- tell it, human trafficking isn't a "somewhere else" problem. It's a Duluth problem.

Its "tracks," where prostitution remains out in the open, can taunt police when they observe a pimp and his car drive around a single block all day long, as officers try to build a trafficking case that evolves slowly and requires meticulous investigation. Human trafficking and its abuses have spurred local child protection workers in new directions and led the superintendent of the Duluth school district to tell a crowd last week that it's incumbent on his and other districts to infuse their children with "a strong sense of self and self-worth."

Nobody working within the orbit of the problem seems content anymore to see Northland girls and women thrown into the maw of human trafficking, and to not step up to address the problem.

A proclamation

Earlier in the day on Jan. 5, the auditorium at Trepanier Hall on West Second Street filled with people. The crowd was larger than expected, and even as Mayor Don Ness read aloud the proclamation announcing January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month in Duluth, there were people unfolding a new row of chairs.    

As the mayor read, "Whereas, to prevent the future violation of our citizens, it is imperative that we foster greater public awareness ...," the others on stage with him braced to deliver their short speeches. They were a mostly fidgety lot, used to working behind the scenes and not in front of a microphone. Still, their speeches were impassioned and each received supportive applause. They touched on different aspects of human trafficking --a matrix of deviousness that incorporates drugs, abuse and other criminal activity into a mix with seemingly law-abiding fathers and husbands as johns whose first remarks upon police interrogation universally are, Duluth police officer Kim Wick said, "My wife is going to kill me."

Nigel Perrote is the trafficking program regional navigator for Duluth's rape-crisis center, PAVSA (Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault). He arranged the lineup of speakers that supported the mayor's proclamation address.

Trafficking in Duluth doesn't look like what it used to, Perrote explained. The days when females sailed in or disappeared through the port on ships are mostly over, he said.

"That's dropped off since 9/11," Perrote said. "The new people coming into our doors haven't had that experience."

The maritime trafficking has given way to a more domesticated form of trafficking that Perrote said is no less traumatic or criminal. He cited sting operations in Superior and Cloquet in recent years that rounded up several johns after law enforcement officers courted the men by disguising themselves as prostitutes online. Perrote said it's in this way, and others, that trafficking victims --including a disproportionate number of Native Americans, as well as young members of the especially vulnerable gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities --are coming to PAVSA and other shelters in Duluth.

When asked to put a number to the problem, Perrote said he knows of about 50 runaways currently on file in Duluth.

"Half of them are at risk of being trafficked," he said.

Police work

Wick, a Duluth police investigator who specializes in runaways, human trafficking and missing people, corroborated Perrote's statistics.

"Absolutely," she said. "I don't know if we have 50 runaways at one time, but what I'll tell you is that one of the ways I go after the criminals I go after is by watching the runaways."

Wick opened and quickly closed a file cabinet near her desk as a way to illustrate the problem. A glimpse inside revealed about two dozen to three dozen files assigned to specific children in the community who have run away and are at high risk for human trafficking.

Wick explained the game pimps will play with runaways. Statistically, she said, a runaway encounters prostitution circles within 48-72 hours of leaving home, and 1 in 3 runaways is lured into prostitution. Cunning pimps in disguise as "Mr. Wonderful" are skilled at locating runaway children and other vulnerable people in places such as malls and offering them a lush life of partying, gifts and free shelter -- with no mention at first of sex. Pimps even will encourage them to return home to test their budding relationship with the vulnerable child. Subsequent runaway attempts grow longer and longer until the pimp has his hooks in the child and suddenly won't let them go home again. The children, Wick warned, fit no stereotype. She has met sons and daughters of lawyers and doctors in the human trafficking trade.     

Recurrent runaway attempts, a previous history of abuse and associations to other known victims are the toxic combination of markers that make for a child who is ripe for exploitation, Wick said. The dozens of files in her cabinet all fit that bill.

"These are children who, most of the time, have been traumatized already," she said. "They're already ripe for one of these pimps to find them."

Wick's clarity for the work came into focus in 2011-12, when she tracked a pair of runaway girls for months. A police department co-worker told her she ought to talk with an FBI agent who'd been investigating a now-34-year-old pimp named Markeace Canty.

Wick met the agent.

"We were on the same case, coming from opposite ends," she said.

From that point, they shared an investigation that led to Canty being convicted and sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for the sex trafficking of a child. Canty and an accomplice trafficked a 17-year-old girl for "his own personal enrichment," US Attorney Andrew Luger said at sentencing last August. The investigation revealed that Canty had prostituted the girl throughout five states. He used online ads and hotels, including rooms in Duluth.     

A new lens

Safe Harbor laws that began in Minnesota in 2011 have made it so "Minnesota youth who engage in prostitution are viewed as victims and survivors, not criminals," the Minnesota Department of Health states on its website. Nonprofit agencies, shelters, police and others are coming together under the mantle of No Wrong Door, meaning victims who reach these entities are provided "trauma-informed services and safe housing."  

Children once treated as delinquents are now afforded dignity in what amounts to a paradigm shift. Exploitation that had once been commonly overlooked or misidentified is being met with fresh sets of eyes.

It's a revelation that's happening across the country, said Mark Wilhelmson, the supervisor in southern St. Louis County's Initial Intervention Unit, which is a first-responder for child protective services. Wilhelmson cited work done in Connecticut, New York City and other places as he explained what has been a critical shift.

It was a sex trafficking conference in Washington, DC, he attended in 2013 that opened his eyes.

"What's striking to me is a very high percentage of those kids had been involved in the child welfare system; over 80 percent confirmed trafficked had been involved with child welfare. It's just amazing, like 'Wow,' " Wilhelmson said. "As I learned more it made more sense; they come from serious child neglect and sexual abuse. That is not surprising."

Wick and Wilhelmson both say runaways are hardly the only ones being exploited. Children in residential treatment programs and foster care make good targets for pimps whose eyes are keen to vulnerabilities.

Ultimately, Wilhelmson explained, the pimp is offering what amounts to conditional love --victims' needs are met provided they give up their bodies. It's important then that the system meets the victims with unconditional love, he said. It explained why investigators with child protection and the police are now less eager to press victims for information right away; they are sensitive to becoming just the latest person who wants something from the victims.   

"If you have kids entering this when they're 12, 13, 14 years old as an average, that means you have 10-year-olds coming into it, too," he said. "These are people being victimized, enslaved in a kind of way."

There is another paradigm shift needed, he and Wick agree, in the realm of public opinion. They said the idea that prostitution is a choice for children and even for women -- many of whom were introduced to it as children -- is a fallacy.

"The public has this idea that it's a 'Pretty Woman' thing and that it's a choice," Wick said. "But everything we do now is victim-led."   


If public opinion about human trafficking and prostitution hasn't caught up with expert opinion, then Fletcher Hinds is among the early ones riding the wave of change.

He talked to the News Tribune the morning after the Men Against Sex Trafficking meeting that he attends regularly.

Every November when the rainy season in Cambodia is over, the 66-year-old former Marine and retired St. Louis County child protection worker travels there with his wife, Joan, as representatives of Minnesota Veterans for Progress. It's an organization that conducts humanitarian projects throughout southeast Asia.

Hinds fought in neighboring Vietnam for a tour in 1969. He and his wife go to help rural villages; they've put in rice patties and gardens to assist a country that remains under dictatorship and sees plenty of its girls exported into the international human trafficking trade, many of them never to be heard from by their families again.

Part of what Hinds and his wife are doing now is working to get up and running a sewing center that will provide growing girls with a marketable skill that can dissuade them from falling victim to the sales pitches of pimps.

"We want to give these women hope," he said of a plan to train 25 girls and women to sew so that they can train 25 more and so on.

The words of Hinds' former colleague in social work, Wilhelmson -- "the best thing we can do to prevent kids from getting into this life is to offer them something else" -- echo when Hinds explained his mission.  

It's an annual act of "reconciliation," he called it.

"I was in the bush, in the infantry, and they'd actually bring prostitutes on motor scooters out into the bush," he said of his Vietnam experience. "Back in the rear there were brothels here and there in little villages. Men in combat buy their women. Most men don't talk about it."

He readily admitted to visiting strip clubs as a younger man, and he recalled them as "joyless" places. He is deeply in love with his wife, and together they share what he calls true partnership.

"The demand problem wouldn't exist if men didn't participate," he said. "The whole industry is built on men participating financially. We're the problem."

The participation isn't simply a matter of impaired judgment, either. Wick explained that in every sting she's been a part of, she has never once arrested a john who was inebriated. It's not something that surprises Hinds.

"Deep down we feel superior to women --that we can have access to women," Hinds said. "A lot of men won't admit that sense of entitlement. But the thinking is, 'If we can pay for it and get it, that's fine.' That part of the male psyche is really part of the problem."


Learn more about Men Against Sex Trafficking (MAST) at its website:

Read more about human trafficking in the Upper Midwest at the Forum News Services Trafficked project website:

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