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Lake County women convene sex trafficking task force

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According to the FBI and the US Department of Labor, incidences of human and sex trafficking have reached all-time high levels worldwide, with Minnesota among the states showing some of the most alarming rates in the nation. In northern Minnesota, victims' advocacy groups have noted that local women -- as young as in their early teens -- are being lured or coerced to the Twin Cities and beyond to be sold for sex.

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A group of six Lake County women have formed a group to combat the trade.The Lake County Human and Sex Trafficking Task force has been meeting since last winter after two of its founders, Marlys Wisch and Susan Hilliard, attended a forum on human trafficking sponsored by the League of Women Voters in Duluth.

Wisch said she recalls having an "aha moment" during the event's panel discussion.

"At one point, I looked at (Susan) and said 'I bet this is going on in Lake County, too,'" she recalled. Hilliard said she had a similar awakening.

"How many times have I seen a middle-aged man holding hands with a young woman, obviously not dressed from the same bank account?" Hilliard said, adding that what may seem to be a perfectly acceptable May-December romance may be in fact be something unsavory and dangerous. "We've grown up with this stuff all our lives and never thought anything of it."

Wisch and Hilliard have since been joined by four other women who have a passion to help sex trade victims. Cristina Manahan and Linda Stevens of Silver Bay, Jennifer Havlick of Silver Creek and Duluthian Corinda Horton.

Each brings something unique to the group. Stevens has been a domestic violence and sexual assault advocate in Lake County for many years. Horton is a recruiter for the military who also facilitates trainings on sexual violence and trafficking throughout the country. All have strong ties to local politics and nonprofit organizations. They emphasize however, that their work crosses all political and ideological boundaries.

"We tell people we're just average, everyday citizens and we want to educate ourselves and others," Wisch said.

To that end, some of the members have sought training from victims' advocacy organizations, studying the growing body of data and victim narratives and meeting with local, regional and tribal law enforcement. They've also met with legislators and a wide range of organizations in Lake and Cook counties. Wisch said they are in the early stages of planning an information forum for the North Shore communities.

Hilliard said that increasing awareness is key to helping victims and preventing victimization. She said she's concerned that people don't talk about the issue or don't know that it exists.

"What we hear is that it doesn't happen here, and if it does, it's none of our business. But it is our business," she said emphatically, "because these are our daughters."

Estimates vary as to how many people are trafficked each year. In July, in conjunction with law enforcement in 76 cities, the FBI arrested 150 adults in connection with prostituting children and rescued 105 children, ages 13-17. FBI assistant director Ron Hosko said that efforts to stop the abuse and exploitation of the nation's children will continue.

"Child prostitution remains a persistent threat to children across America. This operation serves as a reminder that these abhorrent crimes can happen anywhere and that the FBI remains committed to stopping this cycle of victimization and holding the criminals who profit from this exploitation accountable," he said in a statement after the bust.

Hosko said that the FBI partners with local law enforcement and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children to monitor truck stops, casinos, streets and websites for illegal activity involving kids. While large scale busts have not occurred in our region, Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson said that technology has brought the possibility of trafficking to our area.

"Living in small towns, we don't think that happens here," said Johnson, adding that people are more inclined to think it's a big city problem. "The problem is you've got the Internet; you've got to be so cautious as to what you could be lured into."

Havlick said that finding a way to talk about trafficking is necessary to keeping North Shore communities safe.

"I think it's important that if it's here in any form, that we take a look at it," she said, "and if it's not going on here, we keep it from happening."

Wisch said that the task force is looking for a few more members, especially men who are willing to talk to other men about their collective role in addressing sex trafficking.

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