How sex trafficking survivors, law enforcement are working to combat an ‘invisible crime’

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Sex trafficking in Minnesota is a crime hiding in plain sight. 

“I was exploited into sex trafficking at the age of 14,” says Flora Whitfield, with the trafficking survivor-led support group Breaking Free. “A kid that is a runaway will be more likely to be picked up by a trafficker before law enforcement within 48 hours — and that’s exactly what happened to me.”

Whitfield, the group’s program associate director, says she was forced into a life of prostitution after meeting a man at a downtown Minneapolis bus stop in 2004. She says that man used manipulation and force to keep her under his control.

“He had given me two concussions. One of my eyes was blackened shut,” Whitfield recalls. “He realized if he kept a bruise on me, I wouldn’t go back home.”

She explains she escaped after the man was incarcerated.

Whitfield says she stayed in that life until 2015, after being introduced to a survival group and becoming a mother.

“I knew I wanted something different for my daughter,” she says. “I didn’t know exactly what that meant. But I was willing to do anything to not introduce her to that lifestyle and just live a better life. There’s no one who chooses that lifestyle. It’s a lack of choices, of circumstances which keeps them in that life and introduces them into that life.”

Experts say Whitfield is not alone. 

The U.S. Justice Department says up to 17,500 people are trafficked nationwide every year, including here at home.

“In Minnesota, we saw a 175% increase from 2019 to 2020 in the number of victims and survivors who actually reached out to our hotline,” says Laurel Downie, a hotline supervisor with the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that works to combat and prevent sex trafficking in the U.S.

RELATED: 6 arrested, 4 victims rescued in east metro sex sting

She says nearly 2,900 people from Minnesota have contacted the hotline since 2007.

“The message that help is available is getting to the people who need to hear it the most,” Downie notes. “I also think there has been an uptick about awareness, about trafficking and willingness to learn about what trafficking is and what it looks like.”

But authorities say it’s difficult to know exactly how many Minnesota victims may be out there.

A database created by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension shows statewide police have arrested 75 people since the start of 2021 on human trafficking or commercial sex acts charges.

The report says authorities arrested 48 people in 2021 and 27 people so far this year.

“It’s one of those crimes that can sometimes go under the radar because people don’t see it day to day,” Evans says. “The victims in these cases are the people being trafficked, so sometimes it can be somewhat of an invisible crime. And now with the renewed focus on this type of crime, we’re discovering how broad it is and how layered it is in segments of our society.”

The BCA leads a nine-member human trafficking task force. Since late July, that team of officers has arrested at least 10 men in sting operations in Stillwater, St. Paul and Oakdale. Nine of them face charges of engaging, hiring or agreeing to hire a minor to engage in prostitution.

RELATED: 4 charged in east metro underage sex trafficking sting

BCA Senior Special Agent Rachel Pearson says in these cases, suspects typically chat on media platforms with undercover officers posing as minors or sex buyers.

“We have undercover profiles up on social media. Wherever the public is, we’re at,” Pearson explains. “We interact and communicate with them and we negotiate commercial sex acts for money and we arrange a meet location. So when they have communicated with our undercover profiles, they think they’re coming to have sex with a minor and instead, they’re meeting law enforcement.”

Evans says agents also use social media to track down traffickers and help trafficking victims.

“We’re posing actually as a buyer and we identify and attempt to rescue those that are being victimized,” he says. “We work very closely with service providers to offer services and resources to that individual and offer them help.”

Pearson — among the officers who participate in those undercover chats — says for her, trying to protect a potential victim is personal. 

“For myself, it’s very important that I was a barrier and a shield,” she says. “Make sure a child in Minnesota — or someone that crossed the country that was here — was not victimized and that it was law enforcement instead that that sex buyer was communicating with.”

Pearson says predators are on all the popular social media platforms.

Downie says the Polaris Project’s latest figures show a 22% percent increase of cases where victims were recruited online.

Their advice to parents?

“Keep an open dialogue with your children about who they’re interacting with online,” Downie explains. “When something seems dangerous, do talk to them about it, and try your very best not to judge them or condemn the person who is reaching out.”

“I think it’s important that parents have an open dialogue with their children, that they can be able to discuss what’s happening on social media,” Pearson adds. “So in case their children does have contact with a predator who’s trying to make contact with them — that that child can bring that information to their parents … and report it to law enforcement and get the services that are needed.”

But Downie says the Polaris Project has also found a troubling flip side to social media use in trafficking. She says traffickers are stalking, monitoring or blocking social media accounts used by worker victims under their control.

“About 25% of survivors who registered with the study that we did stated their trafficker exploited them through their own personal media account,” Downie says. “So it really does play a big role in how people enter a trafficking situation, but also how their abuser continues to control that while they’re in that exploitive situation.”

Whitfield, now a mother of two girls, says since 1996, Breaking Free has provided services for up to 500 people a year.   

She says the nonprofit connects survivors with therapists, housing, employment advisors and experts to help them navigate the court system.

“One thing I know about traffickers or predators is that they prey on the vulnerability and the unmet needs of the individual,” Whitfield says. “There’s definitely people that care, so if leaving the life is something you definitely want, [we] can help build a network of people to get you to that next step.”  

She says the group also provides hope.

“To have a team of people, a network of people that believe in you essentially before you believe in yourself is the most important thing for me,” Whitfield says. “That is one of the sweet spots for my job, is being able to walk alongside other survivors and watch them progress through their journey.”