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Advocates continue efforts against sex trafficking in lakes area

Kate LePage of Lutheran Social Service and Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted in January 2018 talk to the Baxter City Council on local efforts against sex trafficking. Brainerd Dispatch file photo

People may not have heard about any sex stings in the Brainerd lakes area for some time—but that doesn't mean the issue has disappeared.

It just means traffickers have to figure out a different way of advertising to solicit customers, after a new law went into effect last year making websites accountable, including Backpage and Craigslist, for knowingly hosting ads for paid sex.

The Brainerd Lakes Area Sex Trafficking Team meets monthly and had a short panel discussion Jan. 25—part of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month.

Kate LePage, Saving Grace case manager at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota in Brainerd, said the Brainerd lakes area has so many great community resources and the panel discussion was a way to showcase them and to continue to foster the relationships and expand education efforts.

According to the Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force, the average age when victims are first trafficked is 15. An estimated 6,000 youths experience homelessness on any given night in Minnesota, making them prime targets for traffickers who prey on youths in crises.

During the Jan. 25 panel discussion, LePage said exploitation takes many forms, such as sexual favors for drugs or a way to survive, including a place to stay or food and water.

In 2017 alone, the Department of Justice secured convictions against more than 500 defendants in human trafficking cases and the FBI dismantled more than 42 criminal enterprises engaged in child sex trafficking, according to the Dec. 31, 2018, presidential proclamation of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month. The Department of Homeland Security initiated more than 800 human trafficking cases, resulting in at least 1,500 arrests and 530 convictions.

LePage said sex traffickers will go on girls' Facebook pages, who they think have low self-esteem and begin grooming them to become victims.

LePage said when a victim is identified, LSS has programs to assist them. The Saving Grace program provides youths under age 18 affected by sex trafficking with safe housing, helps them come up with an individualized safety and life plan, and provides basic needs to help them find safe shelter and rebuild their lives, as well as prevent other youths from being trafficked.

Life House Safe Harbor Program, a state program provided by several organizations, including LSS, provides a continuum of care for underage male, female, and gender non-conforming victims of commercially sexual exploitation. Life House provides two shelter beds for sexually exploited or trafficked youths age 15 to 19 of all genders, and a transitional housing program for youths age 15 to 20 years old of all genders.

Outside of LSS is Rising Hope, a nonprofit organization created in 2013 with the goal to help trafficking victims heal and get back into society.

As part of the organization, Vicki and and David Leckie developed the Freedom Ranch project, which will provide housing south of Brainerd where girls rescued from the enslavement of human trafficking can begin healing with the help of counselors, educators and health care professionals in a safe environment.

Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted, a member of the Brainerd Lakes Area Sex Trafficking Team, said the task force has been around for nine to 10 years and the agency or group running human and sex trafficking prevention and education has changed over the years. He said when was running, law enforcement was at the forefront of tackling the social issue. Police began doing several "hotel stings" in 2015, where several people were arrested. But now law enforcement is more in the background and the advocacy groups are at the forefront with spreading the word on prevention and education.

Exsted said the state changed requirements for license renewal for hotels, which meant more training for hotel employees and a good working relationship with law enforcement if an employee sees something suspicious, or what could be sex trafficking.

Exsted said law enforcement focused on sting operations through internet crimes in the past two years. Craig Katzenberger was hired two years ago to be Crow Wing County's investigator to focus on internet crimes.

Katzenberger, who also is a Brainerd Lakes Area Sex Trafficking Team member, said the position was created to work primarily on child crimes on the internet, to include human and sex trafficking. Katzenberger said the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has a task force and any tips coming through the hotline are shared with the area law enforcement agency. Katzenberger said when and other websites were active, authorities were surprised how much activity was generated and how many sex stings were conducted. Then, the federal government shut down the websites. Katzenberger said it's been difficult to find traffickers as law enforcement hasn't found any particular site they are using to solicit buyers.

Law enforcement has been doing investigations on their own, posing as juvenile girls and engaging with sex buyers, and have made some arrests.

LePage said advocacy groups are focusing on prevention and education. LSS trains employees and helps victims identify what a good, healthy relationship is.

"Most unhealthy relationships look almost too perfect in the beginning and then people can start seeing the red flags," LePage said. "Some high-risk youth have never identified with a healthy relationship. We have to take time to model healthy relationships with these youth. A trafficker can be anybody. Internet comes into play so much. We have to educate people on how to use the internet safely."

LePage said LSS does not push any of the services on the victims. She said they work with the youths to provide the basics, such as shelter and food. Then they let the victim know what options they have and allow them to choose how they are helped.

LSS also hosted a Facebook Live book club Friday, Jan. 31, on "Renting Lacy: A Story Of America's Prostituted Children." The book illustrates the daily struggles of child sex trafficking victims through true stories from survivors.

**This story was updated to clarify LSS is one of several organizations who receive funding form the state for the Life House Safe Harbor program.