Social work summit tackles trafficking in Minnesota

Photo by Alex Kennedy '15

Lateesha Coleman and Beth Holger-Ambrose from The Link, Tasha Scott from the Minnesota Department of Health, Terry Forliti from Breaking Free, and CeMarr Peterson from The Family Partnership. Photo by Alex Kennedy '15

Summit on Trafficking in Minnesota

The St. Catherine University–University of St. Thomas School of Social Work held their fourth annual Summit on Emerging Issues in Social Work Practice Tuesday to a full house.

The event tackled "Trafficking in Minnesota" and highlighted the perspectives of survivors, practitioners, organizations, policy makers and law enforcement. Group discussions and a resource fair provided opportunities for students, faculty and community members to share best practices and develop strategies for change.

Services for victims were highlighted during a panel discussion. Some of Minnesota’s most innovative programs come straight from the source — the survivors themselves. Organizations like The Link hire young people who were once trafficked.

“We value their experience, their intelligence and their work ethic." said Beth Holger-Ambrose, executive director of The Link. "So we provide jobs as part-time staff and advisers to help us develop programming that makes sense for their needs."

One of The Link's youth advisers, Lateesha Coleman, shared tips for speaking with youth trafficking victims. Coleman emphasized the need for practitioners to be patient and non-judgmental.

“You need to wait until she realizes that she is a victim, and that she's been wronged. Until it sinks in that the man she's called her pimp for the past year and the man who has been feeding her, and housing her, and beating her, but also protecting her, has done wrong,” she said.

CeMarr Peterson, advocate for The Family Partnership’s PRIDE program, stressed the importance of community collaboration and program referrals in providing services for victims of trafficking.

“We can’t do it alone. We have a comprehensive program, but there’s always something that we can’t provide and we need someone else’s help,” she said.

John Choi

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi shared startling statistics and encouraging enforcement advances in battling trafficking in Minnesota. Photo by Alex Kennedy '15.

Policy Advancements

In addition to best practices in working with victims of trafficking, the discussion also focused on the impact of public policy. Under the Safe Harbor law, passed in 2011, Minnesota youth involved in prostitution are viewed as victims and survivors rather than criminals — and directed to supportive services to aid in their recovery.

The shift in legal approach provides an important step in building trust and encouraging victims to come forward.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi played a heartbreaking 911 call captured by Ramsey County of a Des Moines runaway named Barb. The teen was caught in a trafficking ring and fearful for her life — so much so that she scribbled a good-bye letter to her mother.

“Before the Safe Harbor law, girls like Barb would have been viewed as delinquents,” said Choi. “As you can tell clearly from the audio, this girl is a scared kid who needed our help.”

Since the Safe Harbor law went into effect, sexual trafficking charges in Minnesota have increased, from 38 in 2010 (the year the law went into effect) to 81 in 2012, 72 in 2013 and 48 in 2014. Convictions also increased from 7 in 2011 to 31 in 2012, 63 in 2013 and 24 in 2014 — albeit with some disheartening results (Barb’s traffickers received only one year).

Choi ended his remarks by showing a photo of Target Field. He said the stadium could be filled 17 times with the number of Minnesota victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking — with the vast majority of the violence perpetrated by men.

“We need to have a talk in our community about healthy manhood. How we raise our boys matters,” said Choi.

A multi-agency legislative report on Safe Harbor is due in September, said Tasha Scott, state program administrator senior for the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Safe Harbor program. Organizations and state agencies, including MDH, are hoping the report will extend the scope of services, as well as the upper age limit (currently 18).

“We didn’t have the numbers before, but we will now to show the sheer number of people who are being turned away,” said Scott.

Moving forward, making a difference

Energized by the presentations, attendees rounded out the event by discussing next steps and verbalizing personal commitments to solving Minnesota’s trafficking problem. One attendee raised the issue of acknowledging that victims are recovering from serious trauma, and the need to relax restrictions on the number of counseling sessions allowed.

Another participant, Laura Roehl, shared her commitment to spreading news about sexual trafficking issues via social media.

“Raising awareness brings an important blow in fighting trafficking,” said Roehl, a law student at American University in Washington, D.C. Once she graduates, Roehl hopes to work with immigrants who are trafficked here from other countries and provide legal support for those who are candidates for asylum.

“This issue is not too big for us, it’s not too big for the churches,” said Terri Hands from Trafficking Justice, a Lakeville-based interfaith organization. “If we each did one little thing, collectively we could make a tangible difference.”

Event organizers were encouraged by the turnout — all tickets were reserved shortly after registration opened.

“Clearly, this speaks to our collective investment in making a difference, moving forward together on pathways of change that ensure the safety and dignity of the friends, families and strangers whose lives intersect with ours,” said Lisa Richardson, associate professor and director of field education for the Master of Social Work program.

About the School of Social Work

Sponsored jointly by St. Catherine University and the University of St. Thomas, the School of Social Work offers nationally ranked and accredited social work degree programs from the bachelor to doctoral levels.

Rooted in a philosophy of social responsibility and respect for human rights, the program prepares students for ethical social work practice and leadership in multiple settings and with diverse populations.


Related content

Sexual Violence Prevention Legislative Report (January 2015)
View more photos from the summit on flickr

By Sharon Rolenc