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Patty Wetterling, program director of sexual violence prevention with the Minnesota Department of Health, was one of the speakers at a forum Thursday on sex exploitation and sex trafficking in the Bemidji area. Wetterling is the mother of Jacob Wetterling, who disappeared in 1989 at age 11 near St. Joseph. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Forum discusses sexual exploitation, sex trafficking in Bemidji area

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BEMIDJI -- A room dominated by women faced a panel of women addressing a topic that primarily affects the female population -- sex trafficking in Bemidji.

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Representatives from the Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Support Within Reach and Moving Upstream groups in Bemidji met Thursday at the Northwest Minnesota Foundation to collaborate on ways to address the complex issue.

Patty Wetterling, program director for the Sexual Violence Prevention Program with the Minnesota Department of Health, began discussion of the touchy topic.

“After Jacob’s kidnapping I really realized quickly that we were tapping into this river of sexual victimization,” Wetterling said.

Patty’s son, Jacob Wetterling, 11, was abducted on Oct. 22, 1989 in St. Joseph, Minn. Since that time, Wetterling has looked into what may have happened to her son. One possibility is prostitution.

“I didn’t even want to think about that,” Wetterling said. “When your child is missing...if your child, you know is being trafficked, you don’t know where they are. You don’t know what’s happening and your mind can go crazy with all of that.”

At the time of Jacob’s disappearance, the FBI’s bank robbery division was in charge of the investigation because there was no training on abduction, Wetterling said. In 2003, the FBI created the Innocence Lost program to help end child prostitution. The program has helped rescue 2,700 children and incarcerate more than 1,300 pimps. There are 39 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the United States, officials said.

‘Happens everywhere’ BSU student Monica Adebayo spoke out about her experience with sexual abuse. Adebayo, 36, first entered into prostitution when she was 12-years-old, which is the average age when children enter into prostitution in Minnesota, according Moving Upstream.

“Sex trafficking happens everywhere,” Adebayo said.

Adebayo has been in the Bemidji area for 11 years and said that sometimes the community is not very welcoming to outsiders.

“This is not new to Bemidji. This has been going on for 30, 40 years,” said a woman in the audience who shared that she, too, was a sexual violence victim and survivor. She acknowledged that Red Lake is making progress against combating the issue on the reservation. Her mother was Native American, she said.

“It’s not about sex. It’s about power and control,” she said. “I think Bemidji has blinders on as far as this goes.”

Another woman stated that there is an undercurrent of racism when Native women and girls come to Bemidji. About a dozen women voiced their opinions and one theme carried through: sex trafficking is happening in our area and men need to join women in battling the problem.

Deb Miller, coordinator of the Beltrami County Domestic Violence Court, said she has been working with Bemidji High School on a program that would incorporate a “coaching boys into men” curriculum in the school, which is designed to better help shape attitudes toward women.

“Last week, (the athletic director) called and said he was ready,” Miller said. “He has five coaches he said would like to do the training.”

Recruiting Schools have become a place of peer-to-peer recruitment into prostitution, said Lauren Ryan, director of Safe Harbor and No Wrong Door with the Minnesota Department of Health.

The Internet also has grown into a place where sex trafficking is picking up speed. Ads on the websites such as Craigslist and Backpage.com routinely solicit girls, Native and non-Native, for movie extra roles or modeling gigs in the Twin Cities. Those can be covers for criminals, officials said.

The Minnesota Indian Women Sexual Assault Coalition reported that in an interview of 105 prostituted women, 92 percent had been raped; 92 percent wanted to escape; 84 percent had been physically assaulted during prostitution; 79 percent were sexually assaulted as children and several had been arrested for prostitution as children.

Officials said people need to be aware of the risk factors for young women and men who may become targets for pimps and exploiters. Those factors include poverty, youth (particularly of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender community), runaways, drug users, immigrants and those who are uneducated or who have been domestically or sexually abused. Signs to watch for are physical, mental or sexual abuse, increase in material items, different men dropping him or her off at school, self-mutilation such as cutting, burning, drug use and overall changes in behavior.

There’s also the aspect of “survival sex,” which has become a path to exploitation among the homeless to acquire a place to live or access to drugs and alcohol. Ryan said there is also a lot of gang-controlled activity.

“If you sell someone a drug, they use it once and it’s gone,” Ryan said. “A person you can sell over and over and over again.”

Ryan said the majority of exploiters overall are white men. Specifically, 78 percent of men who abuse Native women are white, 65 percent are African American, 44 percent are latino, 24 percent are Native American and 9 percent are Asian.

The Safe Harbor law was passed in 2011 and goes into effect in August. The law de-criminalizes prostitution offenses for youth under age 18. Ryan said it also created a Safe Harbor subcommittee headed by the Department of Public Safety, Department of Human Services and Minnesota Department of Health.

Moving Upstream is a group that focuses on preventing sexual violence within the local community. The committee aims to expand the power base of the sexual violence movement in Bemidji. Moving Upstream is supported by a grant partnership between the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Minnesota Men’s Action Network and the Minnesota Indian Women Sexual Assault Coalition.

Support Within Reach is a private non-profit resource center that provides advocacy and support services to women, children and men who have experienced sexual violence. The organization serves Beltrami, Hubbard, Cass, Itasca and Aitkin counties.

By the Numbers: 1 in 4 girls is sexually abused before the age of 14.

1 in 6 boys is sexually abused before the age of 16.

Teens between the ages of 16-19 are 3.5 times more likely to be sexually abused than the general population.

22 percent of boys and 23 percent of girls reported abuse beginning before age 8.

50 percent of victims are under age 12.

85 percent of victims know their perpetrators.

86 percent of child sexual assault is not reported.

Information provided by Moving Upstream.

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Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts and Beltrami county government for The Bemidji Pioneer. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
(218) 333-9200 x343
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