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Billboard brings awareness of sex trafficking

A new billboard greeting motorists traveling through Two Harbors sports a camouflage-pattern background, but its message is meant to be dramatically clear.

Purchased by the Lake County Trafficking Task Force with money from the Lake County Board, the sign is intended to raise awareness of sex trafficking to the hundreds of deer hunters traveling through the county over the next several weeks.

"We're asking for help," said Lake County Commissioner Rich Sve, noting that hunters are uniquely qualified to help identify women and children at risk.

"Hunters are observant people. This is a whole group of people who are boots on the ground. They're all over -- walking by abandoned buildings, down long roads, in restaurants," Sve said, suggesting that hunters may notice what the rest of us don't: "something that just doesn't fit; something out of the ordinary."  From there, it's just a matter of making a call to law enforcement.

Sex trafficking  involves coercing, defrauding, or forcing persons -- most often women and girls -- into sex acts in exchange for money or other rewards; new clothes, travel, jewelry, shelter,  even drugs and alcohol. Task force members say they want to start a conversation about the crime.

"We're not pointing fingers or making accusations," said task force member Susan Hilliard. "We just want to make people aware."

Efforts are underway across the state to address human trafficking, and money was allotted by the Minnesota Legislature to provide additional training to law enforcement officers to sharpen their focus.

The key to ending trafficking, say Marlys Wisch, another task force member and Hilliard, is for the public to become aware,  take action if a situation looks questionable and  challenge the it's-none- of- my -business code of silence.

"She's   somebody's daughter," Hilliard said of trafficking victims.

Sve said the County Board was impressed with the women's passion for the issue and agreed that the $800 billboard fell within the commission's mission of protecting the people of Lake County, especially its most vulnerable citizens. He has also taken information to meetings with commissioners from other counties to see what is being done throughout the region and raise awareness.

"I appreciate knowing that they are behind us on this. It's been excellent," said Wisch who said she is also encouraged by the response of local police and sheriff's departments. Most importantly, however, is the role of community members themselves. Hilliard and Wisch say that law enforcement agencies all over the nation have been advising citizens: If you see something, say something.  The message, originally intended to encourage the public to assist in rooting out terrorist threats, is now used to engage the community in public safety in general.  

The task force says the message is making a difference. Federal Homeland Security staffers have said recent arrests for trafficking have been the result of ordinary people taking action, the pair said.

"Citizens got on the phone and called," said Wisch, "that's what it takes."

Since the task force was formed just months ago, three new members have joined and plans for a public forum are taking shape.  Representatives from North Shore law enforcement and the county attorney's office have been invited, as have regional victims' advocacy organizations.

Community members are encouraged to save the date -- Jan. 21 -- to learn more about trafficking, its victims, and what is being done to address this growing crime.

On the national level, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., announced Saturday that she will introduce a bill that will expand Minnesota's safe harbor law -- legislation that protects minors sold for sex from prosecution as defendants -- across the nation. The law will include provisions for support services for victims.

"As a former prosecutor, I know the horror and violence women and children experience as victims of crimes like human trafficking," Klobuchar said in a statement. "(This is a) bill that will tackle sex trafficking head-on and take our Minnesota model national to make sure that these children aren't treated as criminals and receive the support they need."

Klobuchar and Republican Sen. John Cronyn of Texas have also introduced the End Sex Trafficking Act, which is intended to curb human trafficking rings by targeting those who buy sex and prosecuting them as traffickers.

Throughout hunting season and beyond, billboards with messages similar to the one on the west end of Two Harbors are slated to appear in communities throughout the region.