April 13, 2018 06:46 PM
Days after the federal seizure of the so-called online brothel Backpage.com, survivors of sex trafficking in Minnesota are looking to help women escape from prostitution before new websites launch or victims turn to the streets.
"I get really excited when I hear about women getting out of the life," survivor Flora Whitfield said. "I was trafficked at 14. Sometimes it seems like it's a choice, but it's not."
A court order led Whitfield to the organization Breaking Free, where she now works as a program manager and advocate for women.
The organization helps survivors of sex trafficking escape, find stable housing and heal from the harm that was done to them.
Executive Director Terry Forliti says Backpage.com is at the center of all the 200-to-300 women Breaking Free helps each year. Now that the website is down and its top executives and founders are under investigation, she's already seeing advertisements for sex shift to other websites.
"Many of our women have turned from Backpage to Facebook, already. That's really the trend right now that we're seeing," Forliti said.
"Minnesota's been a leader on this," Sen. Amy Klobuchar said to reporters, Friday, as she announced the new law aimed at protecting victims from being sold online.
This week, Klobuchar's bill, which makes it easier for states to bring civil suit against these web pages, was signed into law. It eliminates liability protections for any website that assists, supports or facilitates sex trafficking.
"They were kind of hiding behind a veil of existing law and what this bill says is that they're actually liable," said Klobuchar. "They can't say, 'Oh, we just didn't know about it.'"
"Clearly there's been a massive disruption," Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said of the Backpage.com takedown. "What will happen from that, I'm not exactly sure."
Choi does know, however, that the demand is still out there. Without Backpage, he says it will just surface on other sites.
"Some of it could go to online dating sites that exist that are kind of racy," he said as one example.
However, thanks to this new law, states can now sue those sites attempting to fill the gap.
"They're going to find other places to go or there is going to be other criminal activities that happen or more abuse," Whitfield said of the backlash she predicts will come without the online sale of sex.
She and other leaders at Breaking Free now expecting higher street prostitution. It's one reason why they say it's more important now than ever to reach victims before this brief window in time begins to close.
"I think that aspect definitely saved my life," Whitfield said of the support she found at Breaking Free.
"It's right here in our community," Choi said. "They're in our child protection systems, they're in our juvenile justice system, and so they're hidden but they're in plain sight right here in our community."
Choi says one fear in this Backpage shutdown could be if a new website surfaces and it's based outside of the United States.
That would make the investigation and prosecution much more difficult.
However, he's confident in local authorities' ability to continue tracking down those responsible and hold them accountable.
Updated: April 13, 2018 06:46 PM
Created: April 13, 2018 05:39 PM
Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company