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May 18 event to shed light on trafficking

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St Francis of Assisi Sr. Anne Walch
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Human trafficking may be the biggest issue of local concern that you know nothing about.

That's how it appeared, anyway, to the Franciscan sisters of Assisi Heights, in Rochester, who started a planned six-year campaign against human trafficking — for forced sex, pornography or slave labor — in the summer of 2011.

This January, the sisters held a well-attended three-day awareness event. On the second day, two women from Washington, D.C., victims of human trafficking, gave a dramatic presentation, followed by a panel discussion moderated by KTTC-TV news anchor Tom Overle.

"One of the things that surprised me is that many people in Rochester didn't believe that it happens here," said Sister Christine Stanoch. "We must've had over 350 people. People were shocked. I was at the registration table and it was interesting; people would come out and they'd pull a law enforcement person aside and they'd say, 'My gosh, this happened to me, I did nothing about it.'"

A May 18 event, "Breaking the Chains of Modern Day Slavery," will continue the conversation.

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The event, at Assisi Heights, runs from 9 a.m. to noon.It will include a keynote presentation, "The Story Behind 'The Blue Notebook,'" by Dr. James Levine of Mayo Clinic; a panel discussion, "What is Being Done in Minnesota"; and a salon event facilitated by Mary Christen Czech, titled "Half the Sky Movement: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide." The event will conclude with discussion among attendees about what people can do to help.

"There are so many ways that you can address this issue and there are so many ways that you need to work together as a community, and that's what we're trying to facilitate," said Stanoch.

When the sisters set out on their campaign, they quickly learned they were not alone in their efforts.

Groups like Mission 21, which tries to find safe housing for trafficking women, Minnesota Girls Are Not For Sale, and Breaking Free, which helps victims and provides a "John School" for men who have sought services of trafficking victims, are among the companion efforts, said Sister Anne Walch.

"We are doing a lot of networking with human trafficking," Walch said."It's not like we are the first ones to start this."

The Knights of Columbus recently gave the Sisters of St. Francis a donation of $7,500 to go toward their efforts on human trafficking.

According to Walch, contrary to popular perception, there is more trafficking going on inside the borders of the U.S. than outside the country.

A large amount of that activity happens inside Minnesota's state borders: Minnesota is ranked the 13th-worst state in the nation for instances of trafficking.

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According to Walch, there are an estimated 27 million victims of human trafficking worldwide.

"If you want to know how many that is, it's like putting the states of Washington, Oregon, and Florida together," she said.

"It's a $34 billion industry," said Walch, "If you put all the national football, baseball, basketball, the funds that they make each year together in one lump sum, then that's how much is made on human trafficking."

Despite its large economic shadow, anti-human trafficking efforts receive only a fraction of the funds devoted to anti-drug efforts. From 2001-2009, the U.S. spent $20 billion per year on the war on drugs, and $60 million on anti-trafficking efforts. That's about $333 on the drug fight for every $1 spent to fight human trafficking.

According to Walch, only 1 percent of traffickers are prosecuted worldwide.

One of the sisters' aims is toredefine the way people think about trafficking victims.

"When you look at someone who is being, what we call prostituted, they are victims," Walch said. "That's what we're trying to get across — to change your understanding that these people who are doing this have been forced into it."

Walch heralded Minnesota's Safe Harbor bill, which passed in 2011 but will not go into effect until 2014. The language of the bill treats people victimized by human trafficking as victims, not criminals.

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"In the past, if they picked up these girls, they went into the criminal system," said Walch.

The sisters have more activities planned through next spring.

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Saint Francis of Assisi Sisters Anne Walch and Briana McMarthy spoke with people in the downtown skyways Friday to raise awareness on the topic of human trafficking. At right is Bruce Odell.

Related Topics: CRIMEPEOPLE
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