A new year offers for many a time to reflect on the year past and to look forward into the new one, to set goals and to plan for the future with hope and promise. At Support Within Reach we are no different. Our hope is a world free from sexual violence. The unfortunate truth is that hope is not enough. At Support Within Reach our goal is to reduce the impact and harm of sexual violence in the communities we serve (however you define the community you live, work and play in).

Support Within Reach has many services that help with this goal and give us all hope of communities free from sexual violence. One area of focus in the month of January will be National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. U.S. law defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel a person into commercial sex acts or labor or services against his or her will. The one exception involves minors and commercial sex. Inducing a minor into commercial sex is considered human trafficking regardless of the presence of force, fraud or coercion.

Human trafficking is the business of stealing freedom for profit. In some cases, traffickers trick, defraud or physically force victims into providing commercial sex. In others, victims are lied to, assaulted, threatened or manipulated into working under inhumane, illegal or otherwise unacceptable conditions. It is a multi-billion dollar criminal industry that denies freedom to 24.9 million people around the world.

The Polaris Project is a national campaign, but it is important for community members to be aware that this is something that happens in every community across the nation, including this one (wherever you are reading this). Trafficking may be something you hear about in the news or hear from a friend; about strangers approaching a teenage girl at the mall or a white van with no windows trying to steal children, crates bound for overseas or children hauled away in semi-truck trailers. While this does happen, it isn’t typical of rural Minnesota. Here we see sexual exploitation as the buying and selling of individuals for sex, it can be brokered online and occur in a hotel, resort or house. Yes, it happens all those other ways people talk about too, but again, that isn’t typical.

At Support Within Reach we are careful to tell people that highly accurate statistics do not occur about youth sex trafficking. Also trafficking includes labor trafficking, statistically these are usually combined together which makes sex trafficking an often sensationalized crime for public attention. It is indeed a huge public health issue that needs everyone’s attention. I’m going to take a moment to sound like a broken record, but there are simple things adults can do to help keep youth safe.

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Number one, don’t buy youth for sex. Second, hold each other accountable for how we talk and treat one another, especially children. We are individuals, we are not for sale, and we are not objects to be used as a commodity, especially for sex. Online safety is necessary. We hear a lot that parents don’t monitor their youth’s electronics. There are predators. They are clever. They will exploit any perceived weakness (time alone, fights with family and friends, need to be loved and cared for, etc.). Support one another. Youth need many caring adults in their life.

There are services available for survivors and to the community at large. Support Within Reach houses the Northwest Minnesota Regional Navigator, who serves 15 counties in the northwest region of the state. The navigator is the regional expert and is the point of contact for resources and referrals for sexually exploited youth. Support Within Reach also has the Beltrami County Anti Trafficking Task Force and Case (Communities Against Sexual Exploitation) in Itasca County. For more information contact Support Within Reach at 218-444-9524.

Ashli Lyseng is a program supervisor with Support Within Reach.