A close call in Savage has opened the eyes of Scott County to the reality of sex trafficking, and now the police department and other partners are trying to address the problem through increased communication with the public.
In mid-February, a young teenage girl in Savage ran away to meet someone she thought was a 15-year-old boy. She had met him over the Internet and he urged her to come to Texas with him.
"The person she was communicating with in another state was obviously not a lovesick teenage boy," said Jim Caauwe, the Savage Police Department's crime prevention specialist.
By working with the girl's cellphone provider and various law enforcement agencies, authorities found the girl at a Minneapolis bus station the same day she left, said Rodney Seurer, Savage's chief of police.
Seurer and others now believe the young woman was on her way to being lured into forced prostitution.
The girl's case isn't unique, but it exemplifies the growing scope of sex trafficking in Minnesota, Caauwe said.
It's something people tend to think isn't happening in Scott County, or in the suburbs generally, said Pat Ciliberto, Scott County Attorney, who mentioned the anecdote at a recent County Board meeting.
"Actually, it is happening," Caauwe said. "It's not in your face, but law enforcement sees it."
He said Minnesota has the highest per capita number of runaways in the country, and 50 percent of prostitutes start out as runaways. Minnesota is also among the 13 largest centers for sex trafficking in the U.S., with the average age of entry 13 years old, according to the Savage Police Department.
An eye-opening event
Last Thursday, the Savage Police Department hosted an information session on sex trafficking for parents titled "Human Trafficking, a Local Perspective: Is Your Child for Sale?"
The event, held at Prior Lake High School, featured speakers from the Scott County Sheriff's Department and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, as well as a nationally-known expert on raising healthy adolescents, John Crudele.
"We thought, 'You know what, maybe we'll kind of get ahead of the wave and start getting the word out,' " Caauwe said.
Another reason to address the topic now is that Minnesota's "Safe Harbor" law goes into effect this August. The law is designed to protect minors involved in prostitution, getting them help instead of punishing them.
The law "has changed our perspective," Caauwe said. Now, "They're victims, and they're probably doing this under coercion."
The event focused on dispelling myths, helping people see the warning signs of involvement in sex or human trafficking, and informing parents about Internet safety, since social media sites are often the way youth are recruited.
Ron Hocevar, chief deputy in the Scott County Attorney's Office, played a 911 call from a sobbing woman who was lured to St. Paul from Iowa by a man she met on the Internet. In a week, she was forced to have sex with 30 men and feared her captors would kill her.
Rather than criticized, the woman should be commended for her bravery in making the call, Hocevar said.
Speaker Ann Quinn from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension explained why human trafficking is on the rise, including a seemingly endless supply of victims, many of them young. Others are in the country illegally and speak little English. They are ashamed and terrified to notify authorities, she said.
Victims' reluctance to come forward is a major problem in prosecuting pimps. "We don't have a lot of women out there saying, 'Help me, I'm a prostituted victim,' " she said.
Kristi Masser attended because she has three preteens and was concerned for their safety. "One of the things I'm most interested in is hearing about the social media and things to be aware of," she said. "You think you're on top of things but things are changing so rapidly. It's nice to hear from a professional."
Daryn Kral, a computer forensics expert from the Scott County Sheriff's Department, was that professional. Many parents have no idea that their kids can get online from their iPod or by accessing a smartphone app, he said.
He discussed warning signs that kids might be involved with cyberbullying and shared details of how online predators groom kids. By the time predators meet them in person, kids often trust the adult completely, he said.
Seurer said the department started conducting trainings about sex trafficking several years ago, but technology changes so rapidly that it's hard to keep up.
He emphasized that the best means of prevention is citizens' awareness, along with partnerships with community groups, including branches of law enforcement and social-service nonprofits. "We have 28,000 people in Savage and 28,000 sets of eyes," he said. "That partnership is what got us here today."