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Rochester not immune to trafficking of children

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From left, Sister Elizabeth Gillis and volunteer Pam Trebtoske discuss the Women Helping Other Women exhibit Saturday during the Breaking the Chains of Modern Day Slavery event at Assisi Heights.
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Trafficking of children might seem like something that happens elsewhere, but in reality, Rochester sees as much of it as any other community.

"There really isn't a demographic that makes Rochester and Olmsted County different," Mark Ostrem, Olmsted County attorney, said during a trafficking workshop Saturday at Assisi Heights. "There is nothing unique about Rochester. It is happening in every community."

That was a message repeated over and over again during "Breaking the Chains of Modern Day Slavery," the third in a series of programs on trafficking hosted by the Sisters of Saint Francis at Assisi Heights.

"This can happen in any community," said Randy Chapman, publisher of the Post-Bulletin, who moderated the program. "Indeed, it can happen right here."

And it does happen, with greater frequency than might be expected. At present, about 12 girls who have been trafficked for sex in Rochester are in a recovery program run by Mission 21 , which provides resources and services to children who have been victims of sex trafficking.

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"We continue to get kids referred to us," said Leah Faust, of Mission 21, a member of Saturday's panel. "There are probably a lot more than the number we see."

Also on the panel were Dr. Daniel Broughton, a Mayo Clinic pediatrician and former chairman of the board of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children ; and Patty Wetterling, program director of Sexual Violence Prevention at the Minnesota Department of Health, chairwoman of the board of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and co-founder of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center .

"It's a big problem," Broughton said of trafficking. "But it's not hopeless."

He said sex trafficking and exploitation often involves a combination of force, coercion and fraud, or lying. And while runaway youths are at high risk, "a child can be trafficked even if they live at home," Broughton said.

Predators know how to spot and "groom" vulnerable kids. "People who go after children are really good at finding where there's a crack," Broughton said. "The predator is someone who is around children. People who want to do things to children seek out access to children."

Parents can help protect their children by communicating with them early and often, Wetterling said.

Children not only need to be cautioned to be careful, but should be taught empathy and respect for others, she said.

"So much of our culture does not model respectful behavior," Wetterling said. "We need to be thinking about how we treat each other as a society and a culture."

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Parental involvement is one key, she said. Speaking as a former junior high math teacher, Wetterling said, "Junior high is when kids need you (parents) the most, but parents check out because kids act like they don't need you."

At the same time, Broughton said, "It's important that we teach kids skills and confidence rather than fear and avoidance."

What most kids want, Faust said, is recognition. If they don't get it from those around them, predators will be happy to supply it. "It's important for kids to hear from their parents their worth as an individual," she said.

Upcoming human trafficking awareness events sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis include:

• A one-act play competition at 7 p.m., Jan. 31, at Lourdes High School.

• "Protecting Our Children: A Forum for Parents and Caregivers" 9 a.m. to noon, Feb. 15, at Assisi Heights.

• "Stop the Demand! Men Against Trafficking of Others," 7 p.m., Feb. 25, Assisi Heights.

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Reservations for these events can be made at  www.rochesterfranciscan.org .

Related Topics: CRIME
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