Triumph through Tragedy: How Rochester is Working to Combat Human Trafficking

Human trafficking, the buying and selling of human beings, happens in Rochester. Though difficult to believe, we cannot deny the truth. Repeating the powerful words spoken by William Wilberforce, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.” If there is one thing that the Rochester community has done well, it is the refusal to look away. Rochester is fortunate to have a number of organizations educating our community, advocating for change and providing direct services to survivors of this horrific crime.

Community Mobilization

In Rochester, anti-sex trafficking organization Mission 21 provides direct services to youth survivors of child sex trafficking. Now in its sixth year of operations, the organization helped 17 youth and their families and educated over 3,000 people in southeast Minnesota in 2015 alone. Along with direct services, Mission 21 is one of the first organizations in the United States to pilot a specialized foster care program for youth survivors.

Though there are many elements to Mission 21’s success, co-founder and Executive Director Stephanie Holt states strong community support has been vital. “Mission 21 would not have the impact it has had without the amazing support of our local partners and citizens,” she says. “It is encouraging to our staff to see how fast our community mobilizes when we have a tangible need for the youth we serve. We are very grateful to everyone who has made Mission 21 the community agency that it is.”

 Victims and Survivors

In its 2015 National Legislative Progress Report, Shared Hope International gave Minnesota an “A” grade for the state’s legislation and approach towards combatting human trafficking. Much of this can be attributed to the passing of the Safe Harbor Law in 2011, which stated youth who have been involved in prostitution are not criminals; they are victims and survivors. This foundational change in thinking has been critical. It has led to harsher laws on offenders, statewide awareness and the creation of the “No Wrong Door” model that set Safe Harbor Legislation into full effect in August 2014. Stephanie Holt and others in the Rochester community have been critical to the passing of these legislations that are bettering the lives of survivors on a state level.

Rochester Franciscans

Since Mission 21’s opening in 2010, the Rochester Franciscans have been right alongside the agency sharing in collaborative effort to educate the community. On January 16, with over 225 in attendance, the Sisters held their eighth community awareness event entitled “Breaking the Chains of Modern Day Slavery.” The program included a deep dive into the ways our local law enforcement are cracking down on offenders and included presentations from Mission 21 and other community providers.

Sister Anne Walch, member of the Human Trafficking Awareness Raising Events Committee states, “We want to help the Rochester community know it happens here. We want to network with other community groups and support what already exists—we want to be a whole community.”

 Law Enforcement

In many communities, a bottleneck in fighting for social justice can often be found in the inability to find balanced collaboration with law enforcement. Fortunately, that is not the case in Rochester.

The Rochester Police Department-Street Crimes Unit has been running sting operations on Backpage since 2010. At Breaking the Chains, Investigator John Swenson and Sergeant John Fishbaugher stated they receive approximately 50-100 calls per ad they post on the site. In December 2015, the group held a two-day operation targeting buyers, or “johns,” and made 18 arrests in Rochester. Investigator Swenson explained that though law enforcement is cracking down on offenders, they continue to keep a victim-centered mindset; “We try to treat every woman we’re encountering as a victim first.”

 Working Together

With providers, advocates and law enforcement working together to make Rochester safe for all, significant outcomes are being seen—children rescued, offenders arrested and traffickers behind bars. In October 2015 at Mission 21’s Fifth Annual Open Your Eyes Banquet, the Rochester Franciscans and the Rochester Police Department-Street Crimes Unit were both honored with awards recognizing the groups’ collaborative efforts to end sex trafficking in Rochester.

Through continued commitment to educate and act in the community, Rochester groups will continue in their rigorous fight to abolish the trafficking of children. Though human trafficking exists in our community, there is one thing that is clear: Rochester will not look the other way. 

Tori Utley is a freelance writer.