Sex trafficking is happening in Carlton County, said Kelly Haffield, sex trafficking investigator with the Fond du Lac Police Department.
Sex trafficking is a market-driven criminal industry based on supply and demand, according to the National Sex Trafficking Hotline. In other words, as long as people are willing to purchase other people for sex, there will be incentive to continue trafficking.
Sex trafficking can occur at a business or private residence. Haffield explained that traffickers find their prey wherever young people congregate. They attend concerts and go to parks, malls and outside of schools.
It is common for them to target victims on social media. Young people may pour out their heartaches and problems online, creating an easy target for a trafficker.
It often begins when a trafficker targets a youth and starts to groom them.
"Groomers know what to say," Haffield said. They may shower them with compliments about their appearance or intellect. They are smooth talkers, expert liars and manipulators.
The trafficker lures them into a false sense of security. Most youth who are targeted struggle with issues.
"Many of the kids have home life issues, low self-esteem or have been a victim of past sexual assault," Haffield said. "There may be substance abuse. They have little if any family support."
The trafficker may refer to her as his girlfriend to help gain her loyalty. She is vulnerable and wants to believe him. If she is living on the streets or a runaway, he may take her in and give her a home, clothes and food.
This "proves" that he cares for her. She has nowhere else to go.
The trafficker often supports a substance habit or creates one to help keep and control her. If that doesn't work, the trafficker may resort to violence.
"They do not see themselves as victims," Haffield said. "A lot of times, they refer to the trafficker as their boyfriend and they believe he is their boyfriend."
She said there was an isolated incident at Cloquet Middle School last year where an older high school student was trying to recruit younger female students for sex trafficking.
"The most common ages are 12-14 years old," Haffield said.
While victims are predominantly younger females, traffickers also recruit young males and adult females. About 40 percent of victims are minors.
Haffield said most of the trafficking that occurs in Carlton County is brought in from outside the county.
According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Minnesota recorded the nation's third-highest rate of human trafficking in 2015.
In Minnesota, buyers are usually married, middle- to upper-class white males with disposable incomes, the University of Minnesota's Jones Center reported in 2017. And, according to St. Paul-based Lutheran Social Services, about 26,000 men from big cities to small towns across the state purchase women for sex each year.
Haffield said it is extremely rare for a sex trafficking victim to come forward. Usually, there is a 911 call for a disturbance or domestic assault that reveals the trafficking. She said it is usually a slow process for a victim to break free of their trafficker. The victim generally tries several times before achieving freedom.
Hotel staff required to get training
A new mandate passed in the 2018 Minnesota Legislative session requires hotel and motel staff to receive training to recognize signs of sex trafficking by Nov. 28, 2018. New employees must be trained within 90 days of hire.
These establishments are required to post and maintain an approved poster on sex trafficking in a location visible to all staff, conduct annual training and support an ongoing awareness campaign for employees.
The requirements are tied to hotel and motel licensing; the exception is resorts. If a resort has a hotel license, then it is required to also provide training.
Haffield urges the public to pay attention, especially at workplaces that employ cashiers, servers, hotel staff and anywhere that draws a lot of traffic.
"Listen to your gut instincts," she said. "If you are at a hotel and see something suspicious, tell hotel security or the front desk."
Possible signs of sex trafficking
• A couple that appears to have a wide age difference, such as a 50-year-old man and a 20-year-old woman. Pay attention to body language, and whether the older male doesn't allow the younger woman to answer questions or talk.
• An older male in his 20s or 30s, shopping with teenage girls who are obviously not his daughters, and who is purchasing them makeup or inappropriate clothing.
• An older male with a much younger female at a hotel without luggage, and she isn't dressed for the weather or age appropriately.
If something looks suspicious, call 911.