Midwest in Crosshairs of Child Sex Trafficking Fight

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By Deborah Feyerick & Sheila Steffen

CNN

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota (CNN) — Tamara Vandermoon is barely recognizable in the photo she holds up; her face is swollen and bruised, her eyes nearly battered shut. She was 19 at the time. “My pimp had beaten me and stomped my face,” she says. “I was black and blue.”

The Minnesota woman has seen a lot in her relatively short life. Abandoned by her father and angry at her mother, she ran away when she was 12, the same age she turned her first trick trading sex for money and gifts.

“I just wanted to be accepted and loved. I was told how beautiful I was and if you do this I’ll get you this … and I’ll make you my girlfriend.” Before she knew it she was prostituting herself up to 50 times a night, the money going to her pimp or to feed the drug habit she developed, she says, to “numb the pain” of her life.

Her eyes fill with tears as she remembers: “I was just a baby. I was 12 and they preyed on me. What would a grown man want with a twelve-year-old child?!” Now 31, she is finally getting out after nearly two decades in the sex-trade.

When it comes to child and adolescent sex-trafficking in the United States, the FBI ranks Minneapolis-St. Paul among the top 13 places in the nation. With its tangle of highways known as Spaghetti Junction, its year-round sporting events and frequent conventions, millions pass through on any given day. “There’s the thought no one’s going to catch you in the Midwest,” says Dan Pfarr who works with teens in crisis.

Like Vandermoon, many teens who wind up in the sex trade are runaways targeted by men who coerce or threaten them through physical or psychological abuse.

“They don’t say they’re pimps. They say they’re boyfriends,” says Vednita Carter founder of the non-profit group, Breaking Free which has helped hundreds of women in Minnesota escape what they call “the lifestyle.”

“It’s very easy to lure somebody into believing that this person doesn’t mean any harm for them,” she says.

In other cases, girls are drugged or abducted and simply disappear. Their phones are confiscated. And as with international sex-trafficking, they are moved from city to city and state to state, kept isolated from anyone who may be able to help. Carter says once the girls are taken finding them is almost impossible.

For more than a decade, Minneapolis Police Sgt. Grant Snyder has been trying to uncover and fight sex exploitation and adolescent sex-trafficking in the Midwest. The pimps, he says, are “very good at first identifying who’s vulnerable, and then working those vulnerabilities.”

Though difficult to confirm, the statistic most cited by police and child advocates is that within 48 hours of running away, one in three teens will be approached by someone in the sex trade.

With hundreds of thousands of runaways every year in the midwestern U.S., the pool of potential victims is immense. Yet ask about adolescent sex trafficking in the U.S. and most people don’t realize how many American girls are forced into prostitution every year.

“We think the children being trafficked are not our children but they are our children and they come from our communities,” says John Choi, the chief prosecutor for Ramsey County, Minnesota.

The prosecutor has seen an increase in the number of cases involving underage girls and says: “They are … easier to control, as well as in greater demand, though it’s a sick demand.”

Attorney Mike Freeman of Minnesota’s Hennepin County says the pimps he’s encountered are “skilled and dexterous in manipulation.” His office is also prosecuting a higher number of child-sex traffickers.

One of Freeman’s recent cases involved a 14-year-old runaway who spent more than three years in a world she couldn’t escape. “I know that she was doing what she had to do, in her mind, to survive,” says her mother who asked CNN to call her Violet to protect her daughter’s privacy.

Prosecutors say the teenager was at a bus stop and approached by a man and his girlfriend. “They wanted to know if she wanted to go hang out, and she got in the car,” Violet says. “That’s where it all started.” It took less than a week to post an ad on an adult services website selling the teenager for sex.

“Threats were made that if she told anything about what she was doing or told on him that he would come back and kill her family,” says Violet describing how her daughter was beaten and psychologically tortured.

Last October, police rescued the teen during an undercover operation. In February, prosecutors arrested and charged Akmal Saleem Karon with eight counts of solicitation, inducement and promotion of prostitution. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. Yet according to the criminal complaint, the Minnesota man advertised Violet’s daughter on an internet escort site – one ad allegedly featured a $99.00 special that included sexual intercourse.

Asked about the emotional impact on her child Violet says: “It has wrecked her life completely. She has to rewind and repair.” The girl, now 18, is at a facility getting psychological counseling and trying to heal.

The problem of child sex trafficking in the Midwest is growing – in part because of the surge of online advertising that gives buyers and sellers greater anonymity.

Minnesota has aggressively made anti-trafficking a priority. Last year, numerous police chiefs, top prosecutors and advocate groups lobbied the state legislature to pass the Safe Harbor Act, which modified Minnesota law to classify underage prostitutes as victims not criminals.

Instead of locking them up, police officers like Sergeant Snyder have been able to recruit girls to testify against their accused sex traffickers, while getting them the resources and help they need as victims of sexual abuse and exploitation.

“This is a sea change,” says Choi who pushed for the bill. “We’ve heard so many times from runaways … “had I known I could get help from police, I would have gone.””

The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota has also launched a campaign with the slogan “Minnesota Girls are Not for Sale.”

Lee Roper-Batker heads the $4 million public awareness campaign that will give grants to anti-trafficking groups. “We’ve got to have zero tolerance for the buying and selling of girls. No girl chooses prostitution,” she says.

Roper-Batker says most men buying sex from children “don’t think of it as a horrific act of violence … and because they’re paying for it, somehow that legitimizes it for them.”

Snyder agrees pointing out that prostitution is a felony but buying sex is a misdemeanor. “We need to treat the men that are clients of women and girls in the sex trafficking industry as part of the conspiracy to kidnap, imprison, enslave and to traffic these women.”

At a court-mandated ‘school for Johns’ a group of men — all with first time convictions of paying for sex and many wearing weddings bands — listen as survivors of teen prostitution describe the abuse, drugs and reality of the “life.”

Run by Joy Friedman, of Breaking Free, she says men need to understand how devastating it is for young women. Friedman, who is also a survivor, warns the men they can no longer say they “didn’t know.”

“I can walk the streets all I want, or advertise … but until you stop, until you pick up the phone to call, until you open your car door, no harm comes to me. No violence comes to me.” Friedman pauses, makes eye contact and let’s the Johns know they can end this.

They can help stop the cycle of demand that fuels prostitution and sex trafficking. She tells them: “You are … the solution to this problem.”

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