Mark Ostrem: Sex trafficking victims need help and hope
Human sex trafficking. Society used to call it prostitution, and many people still do. Why the paradigm shift?
Consider Stacy's story.
At age 19, Stacy was walking home one evening, the same route she took most nights. It was getting dark when a car pulled up and an elderly man offered her a ride. He told her it was not a good idea to be out walking late at night.
He seemed nice enough — but little did Stacy know that this elderly man was paid to find girls like her. He did not drive her home. He delivered her to a pimp. She was taken at gunpoint and drugged.
This is how Stacy became trapped in human sex trafficking. It would be 10 years before she could escape.
Other individuals involved in human trafficking have similar stories. It is rarely a lifestyle they freely choose. Generally, it is a lifestyle forced on them. Stacy was a victim of a kidnapping and drug addiction enforced by her pimp, and then she was forced to prostitute herself to survive.
Stacy's is not an unusual story, other than her age. Most victims are taken between the ages of 12 and 14, and they're imprisoned through threats of violence against their family, psychological manipulation and isolation.
Many people believe victims of sex trafficking can and should simply walk away, that all they need to do is just call a police officer, social worker or public employee, and they'll be rescued.
Sadly, it's not that easy. Pimps use all manners of coercion to maintain their dominance over their victims. The fear of violent harm is real and likely has been experienced or witnessed.
What can we do?
A few years ago, the Sisters of Saint Francis invited me to an event on human trafficking. I thought I had a fairly good grasp of the problem (I still thought of the victims as prostitutes), but I quickly learned how little I really understood.
A year or so later, I joined other Minnesota Metro County attorneys pledging to no longer treat juveniles being trafficked as delinquents; rather, we acknowledge they are children in need of protective services. I have been active in juvenile human trafficking issues, including implementation of the recent Safe Harbor legislation. And the sisters continue to offer education.
The general public should acknowledge that most persons engaged in prostituting themselves are not criminals, even though our criminal code may provide otherwise. They are victims. If we treat them like criminals, they will feel like criminals and respond like criminals. That dynamic further reinforces the "bond" a pimp has with victims, by sending the message that no one else really cares for them and no one will look out for them. That no one will ever accept them or see them as anything other than a prostitute.
If we recognize and treat trafficked individuals as victims, we have hope they will recognize the sincerity of our offer of resources. Basics such as food, shelter and protection from their pimp are essential. Basic education and chemical abuse therapy are typically additional crucial needs, along with medical care, mental-health needs and life skills.
We offer those resources at the time of the "arrest" and every opportunity we have moving forward. Our law enforcement officers know it is crucial that our offer is sincere and timely.
As Stacy's tenure suggests, we may not get a victim's attention the first time. If a victim is not successful, we keep trying. With "adult victims," we can leverage the power and discretion of the prosecutor to strengthen the sincerity of an offer to get out.
The policy of the Olmsted County Attorney's Office regarding human trafficking victims attempts to do just that, to provide any number of services, tailored to a particular victim, which will assist in transitioning to a "normal" lifestyle.
We do this by actually charging the criminal matter and then diverting the case while a victim takes advantage of all we have to offer. When she is successful, the case is dismissed. A victim will not only have been given an escape route, but a "clean" record to continue to build a new life.
Likewise, the policy of the Olmsted County Attorney's Office for patrons (johns) is to adjudicate them guilty, require intervention programming and pay fines and additional fees for victims' services along with other terms designed to stop the demand.
For promoters of human trafficking (pimps), we take a hard line on convictions and impose significant jail sentences and fines, in part designed to separate promoters from their victim pool.
Stacy is no longer a victim. She is a survivor — another paradigm shift.