by Mike Knaak
Area city officials heard an update on sex trafficking investigations and then they asked law enforcement leaders what else needs to be done to combat the problem.
Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall and Waite Park Police Chief Dave Bentrud spoke to mayors, city council members and city administrators during a St. Cloud Area Joint Cities meeting May 29 in Sartell.
“We want our elected leaders to understand what we are seeing,” Kendall said. “There’s a misperception that this only happens in big cities.”
Working with police officers in the Central Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force, Kendall’s office has been prosecuting the traffickers as well as the buyers of sex.
“When you understand the connection between traffickers, gang history and violence, you’ll see why trafficking is a serious issue,” Bentrud said.
Kendall and Bentrud shared some details of the effort with officials: 15-20 traffickers have been prosecuted; 150 to 200 women are being sold for sex; trafficking is less risky than selling drugs – and brings in as much as $15,000 per month.
Kendall said Stearns is the only county prosecuting the buyers but “we can’t prosecute our way out of this. Beyond that we have to allow (the women) to get out of the life and educate the community so they don’t get into it,” Kendall said.
The recent arrest of a Waite Park massage parlor owner accused of trafficking and promoting prostitution prompted several questions from city leaders about ordinances.
Bentrud suggested tougher licensing standards for massage parlors but urged officials to adopt the laws across all jurisdictions. If one city passes a tougher ordinance, that will just push the problem to neighboring cities, he said.
Kendall and Bentrud said they want to speak to schools to alert teachers, administrators and staff on how to recognize victims and buyers. They’d also like to reach students and they asked the elected officials to encourage school board members to let them in the schools.
“We need to be talking to our kids,” Bentrud said. “We have sex acts occurring in our area high schools for money. We need the support of the school boards to get this message out to kids.”
The task force received a $313,000, two-year state grant to pay for investigators and a data analyst, but long-term funding is a challenge, Bentrud said.
In addition to investigation and education, Bentrud said a transitional housing facility would help get victims out of “the life” and back into society by providing stable housing, workforce training and legal aid.
“Sustainability for our task force is our near-term challenge,” Bentrud said.
Kendall’s formal presentation included a video with victims telling their stories as well as police and prosecutors. She also shared materials that help people identify sex trafficking. The materials stress prevention and intervention.
Victims feel insecure and unappreciated and lack relationships, are runaways or homeless, have been abused – young people in search of belonging, Kendall said.
Buyers are typically white men between 35-60, most are married with children and middle-class jobs. Men arrange for the sex acts during the noon hour or on the way to or from work.
Kendall distributed detailed lists of “red flags” to help spot traffickers and suspicious actions.
“People are being bought and sold,”Kendall said. “If you see something say something. Dial 911.”