A Compound Form of Violence

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January Marks National Human Trafficking Awareness Month

by Emily Dreher, Unspoken Voices Contributor


January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, a chance to shed a light on a complicated issue. It is essentially modern slavery, and it poses a threat to public health in addition to being a violent crime.

Human trafficking has two forms, sex and labor, but sex trafficking will be this post’s focus. Sex trafficking is when a person or organization (trafficker) forces someone into commercial sex by means of threats, physical harm, false promises, and other coercive tactics. The definition for minors changes slightly, where a sex trafficking victim is anyone under 18 who is  “compelled to perform a commercial sex act regardless of the presence of force, fraud, or coercion,” according to the Office of Trafficking in Persons.

Victims of sex trafficking share many characteristics with  victims of abuse -- and surviving abuse is a risk factor for becoming trafficked. Though anyone can be targeted, victims are disproportionately women and girls, as well as sexual and ethnic minorities.  Traffickers often exploit physical and financial vulnerabilities to position themselves as providers or protectors. This puts those experiencing homelessness, joblessness, poverty, and substance abuse at increased risk.

The numbers of trafficking victims and cases are difficult to pin down, but the National Human Trafficking Hotline provides some idea. In just the first half of 2018, the hotline saw more than 14,000 calls and 5,000 reported cases, with 3,700 of those cases for sex trafficking alone. They estimate there were nearly 18,000 potential victims. In the same time period in Minnesota, there were 110 calls and 45 reported cases, of which 35 were sex trafficking. These reports don’t reflect the true scope of this issue -- there’s no telling how many cases go unreported.


Breaking Free, a St. Paul-based nonprofit, works to help victims of sex trafficking by providing case management, education, training for job and life skills, and a support group. Lindsay Arf is a survivor who now works at the organization. She was in “the life” for 12 years before being arrested in 2016, but this time, a Safe Harbor coordinator (more on this later) steered her away from jail and helped coordinate food, child care and temporary shelter.

That put her on track to getting her first full-time job. A few years later, she used her public speaking experience to get a job at Breaking Free, where she is now an outreach specialist. Her work involves going out on the streets to give out food, hygiene products and informational cards.

But finding these victims and getting them help can be a challenge due to sex trafficking’s hidden and criminal nature. Law enforcement officers may not recognize signs of trafficking in a victim, so they may charge/arrest victims with prostitution, making it more difficult to then apply for a job or housing. Minnesota, however, has some ways around that scenario. As part of a law first passed in 2011, the Safe Harbor approach decriminalizes victims of sexual exploitation who are under 24 and appoints regional coordinators who connect victims to services and safe housing.

That makes the law a double-edged sword, Lindsay said. She was able to get help through the program after her 2016 arrest even though she was above the age limit. But for her outreach work with Breaking Free, she said they have seen fewer referrals than when prostitution was criminalized. Part of that is because victims aren’t being arrested, as that is a common way to find them and intervene.

But the good news is measures like Safe Harbor make it easier for more people to be trained on identifying victims. When people outside law enforcement know what to look for, there’s a better chance they can help. This can include medical professionals, school staff, and salon workers. Plus, the Department of Health and Human Services is conducting research on intervention strategies, state legislation, data collection and a potential screening tool for child welfare settings.