Minnesota fighting an overwhelming battle against sex trafficking
STILLWATER, Minn. — Aimee Schroeder, a criminal analyst with the Washington County attorney's office, starts her day scrolling through listings on Backpage.com.
Her task is to pinpoint which Twin Cities ads are selling people, particularly children, for sex. Photographs of girls — they're almost always girls — with bruised bodies and the track marks of drug use tip her off to possible sex-trafficking crimes.
As she scrolls, Schroeder keeps an eye out for small hands and children's clothing. The task is daunting.
About 55,000 ads were posted in the metro area this year selling children and young adults for sex.
"That number itself tells you that there's a significant problem in the Twin Cities," said Imran Ali, the Washington County assistant attorney who is heading up the county's year-old effort to collect data on sex trafficking and help its victims.
The Twin Cities is among the 13 metropolitan areas in the U.S. that have the highest rates of child sex trafficking, according to the FBI. And because Washington County is a hub for major highway connections, sex work is often headquartered there. From Washington County, it's easy to travel to Ramsey or Hennepin counties, where the act itself usually occurs.
It's the internet that has made the crime so prevalent. In a few clicks, people can anonymously buy sex from anyone, Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said.
"I can order up a human being to come to my house and sell her body to me, and then I can order a pizza — and I'll bet the gal beats the pizza to my door," Orput said.
The Washington County team feels overwhelmed, but it has had some success.
With just one police officer, an analyst, an attorney and a couple of part-time law clerks devoting their 40-hour weeks to the effort in the past year, 20 trafficked children and young women have been found.
Schroeder takes note of the date an ad is posted, the victim's or perpetrator's name, and the phone number and email address associated with it. She enters the information into a database.
Ali said the data is important.
"I think that when we are trying to figure out how to combat the problem — and all these police chiefs and elected county attorneys are trying to figure out what resources to allocate — they have to know how big the problem is," he said.
With the number of victims being trafficked, it would be impossible to recover every last victim, so Ali's team focuses on tracking down the underage ones.
It's a choice they made while researching the tracking program late last year, before it launched in January.
"We started looking at Backpage because no one in our office was familiar with (it)," Ali said. "Within one hour, we found an individual that was a 16-year-old in our community."
The team alerted law enforcement, who tracked down the girl and provided her with services.
Victims can get sucked into trafficking a number of ways, including through lovers who act as traffickers, by meeting perpetrators on social media or through dating apps, and through drug dealers who accept sex as a form of payment. Any social media, the team says, is fair game; they've even tracked down a victim who found her trafficker using the Scrabble-like phone app "Words With Friends."
Often, the victims are runaways or addicts or have a mental illness.
When Schroeder thinks she's stumbled on an ad for a trafficked child, she takes to social media.
Searching a child's name on Facebook or Instagram is hit-or-miss; sometimes, Schroeder can identify the victim — and the perp — herself. Then, she sends the case to Woodbury police Detective Paul Kroshus. Other times, the team spends weeks digging for clues as to who the trafficker might be.
Kroshus, who was taken off his regular assignment in June to work on finding traffickers full time, gets subpoenas for agencies like Backpage and credit card and phone companies in hopes of finding clues to identify the victim.
A computer's IP address, the emails associated with it and the number of Backpage listings per email, usually up to 200 or 300, are returned to Kroshus. The process can take a few hours, or a few weeks.
It's not always so straightforward, Kroshus said. Traffickers will often use temporary phone numbers and cycle through email addresses in an attempt to remain anonymous.
If all else fails, Kroshus goes undercover. He tries to reach out to the victims and determine their location, in hopes that meeting them face to face will persuade them to leave their traffickers.
The team once spent three weeks sifting through prepaid-phone records, fake email accounts and inconclusive social media searches to track down a 13-year-old girl.
"It's frustrating from the law enforcement side, because they know this is going on," Ali said. "We do everything we can, and we work as fast as we can, but trying to get to her took time."
The hardest part, Kroshus said, is trying to stay up to date on victims' locations as phone numbers and emails rotate and Backpage advertisements disappear, only to reappear in a few days.
"As we're trying to catch up to them, we're kind of a city behind," he said.
Sometimes the victim cannot be found. And in that case: "There's nothing we can do," Kroshus said. "If we can't track them, we can't track them."
"With limited resources, the best way I can describe what I have to do is triage," he said. "There's only so many hours in a day, and so many days in a week. ... Even with kind of being on the early side, I'm completely inundated with a caseload that I can't keep up with."
The Washington County Board last week accepted a $184,000 state grant that will fund a law clerk, legal assistant and project manager for the county attorney's office. The new staff will work on efforts to recover sex-trafficking victims.
Still, the entire team feels the pressure of lacking the manpower to recover every victim.
In October, a 41-year-old St. Paul man was sentenced in Washington County District Court after he spent months selling a 17-year-old Forest Lake girl for sex and stripping, a criminal complaint said.
The team can place victims, such as the Forest Lake girl, in safe housing and provide them with transportation and food.
If victims are underage, police are able to remove them from trafficking against their will. If they're adults, police try to persuade them to get out of the situation.
As soon as a child is recovered, parents become involved. Often, those parents are surprised or in denial when they learn their child has been sexually exploited.
"That's the thing that was the most shocking," Ali said. "I thought ... that the indicators would have been in all of theses scenarios (that) there's a broken home, and that's simply not the case."
A victim witness coordinator will sit down with parents and refer them and their child to follow-up counseling services.
Because for years sexually exploited youth were prosecuted under the law — and adults still are — victims at any age often shy away from help, and convincing a trafficked person that they're better off leaving the situation under police protection can be difficult.
Beyond Washington County, Ramsey and Hennepin counties have developed training for hotel staff to identify potential victims and have partnered with advocacy organizations to provide victim support.
So far, it seems police are targeting traffickers and buyers instead of sex workers, said Lauren Ryan, who directs the Safe Harbor program at the Minnesota Department of Health.
Since the Safe Harbor law took effect in Minnesota in 2014, youth under the age of 18 are safeguarded from prosecution.
"It's been a complete and total change," Ryan said. "Not even that long ago — five years ago — law enforcement would see that as someone doing something criminal. Now, it's just been flipped on its head. Actually, what's being done to this person ... is them having a crime perpetrated on them."
But when victims turn 18, they're subject to criminal charges if a county attorney chooses to take that route, though they're still eligible for shelter and counseling services until age 24.
"It is a hard argument to make, that somehow we've served someone until the day after their 18th birthday, and they can see all of a sudden," Ryan said. "Somehow, that doesn't make sense."
Washington County officials recovered an 18-year-old, drug-dependent woman from the Twin Cities sex-trafficking ring — twice.
Both times, police provided victim resources.
"Within three months, she had two traffickers. That's sobering to think about — that not only did that happen, but there are two ... people willing to take on the role of promoting someone so young and so vulnerable," Ali said.
"If we see her again, we're going to take another shot at it. Maybe the third time works. Maybe at this point, something has changed significantly in someone's life that they're ready."
The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.