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Lake County leaders vow to combat human trafficking

It’s an equal opportunity crime that can happen to anyone, anywhere — even in Lake County. And it has.

That view was expressed by Lake County Board Chair Rich Sve as he joined 15 elected officials, law enforcement officers and community members Monday to mark the beginning of Human Trafficking Awareness Month.

“It can happen to our daughters, our granddaughters and our nieces. It can happen to our sons, grandsons and nephews,” Sve said to the group gathered in the atrium of the Lake County Court House, followed by a candlelight vigil.

Sve cited a specific instance hitting very close to home; a story chronicled in a four-part Minneapolis Star Tribune series last fall about a young Lake County woman lured away from her home and family into a life of prostitution.

“We read her horrific story and rejoiced in her rescue and sympathized with her situation, and wish for her a life of normality,” Sve said.

The event was organized by the Lake County Sex Trafficking Task Force in an effort to gather support and call attention to the modern day enslavement and the exploitation of millions throughout the world, including Minnesota’s Arrowhead. The crime of trafficking may include threatening, coercing or enticing victims — an estimated 100,000 children under 18 — to participate in commercial sex acts. Those may include street prostitution, residential brothels and escort services, or forced labor on farms, in homes, restaurants or factories.

Task force members say they have spent months educating themselves about human trafficking by attending workshops, lectures and meetings, and by reading books and articles on the subject. Determined to share what they’ve learned and encourage action to prevent trafficking from claiming Lake County kids and young adults, they have been meeting with officials throughout the region, including U.S. Border Patrol agents, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, prosecutors, state, county and city leaders, as well as advocacy organizations. They say that they have been gratified by the response.

“We’ve had very strong support from our local mayors and strong support from our commissioners and law enforcement, said task force co-founder Marlys Wisch.

“I’m very passionate about this issue,” said Silver Bay Mayor Joanne Johnson, who recently met with task force members and learned of the crime’s prevalence. “I’m going to do whatever I can to help.”

Two Harbors Mayor Randy Bolen also expressed his commitment to prevention and action on behalf of victims.

“We’re going to do whatever we can to be proactive and a part of the process,” he said.

Two Harbors police officer Ken Anderson has taken a special interest in trafficking, volunteering on the task force with the support of Chief Kevin Ruberg and assistant Chief Rick Hogenson. Anderson said he wants to raise awareness in the community with the hope of encouraging people to come forward and report suspected trafficking activity or other victimization.

“No kid deserves to be trafficked or abused,” he said.

After brief statements by the Two Harbors and Silver Bay mayors, Sve read a proclamation that he Johnson, Bolen, Beaver Bay Mayor Kent Shamblin and Silver Creek Township chair Mike Hoops signed in recognition of Trafficking Awareness Month.

The proclamation noted the importance of continuing efforts to eradicate trafficking and exploitation and urged “all citizens to educate themselves about all forms of modern slavery and the signs and consequences of human trafficking.”

The evening concluded with a poem written and read by Diane Dinndorf Friebe, who said her work was inspired by a powerful, dramatic performance she had seen. Afterward, a candle was lit to represent the spark of hope that lives in the hearts of victims and the hope for rescuing those who have been exploited from their perpetrators. Participants observed a moment of silence and read a word or inspirational phrase as a reminder of their commitment to awareness and action on behalf of victims.

The Lake County Sex Trafficking Task Force will host a discussion at the Two Harbors Community Center from 7- 9 p.m. on Jan. 21. A multi-disciplinary panel has been convened to answer questions about the issue; what it is, who is most vulnerable, what is being done to combat the crime and to support victims and how everyone can help. The forum is free and open to the public.