ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) – Earlier this April, Minnesota hosted the NCAA Basketball Championship. In its aftermath, law enforcement arrested nearly 50 suspected human traffickers and reported the rescue of more than two dozen victims.
High-profile cases like that one shine a light on a shadowy world worth billions of dollars. But human trafficking happens more often, and in more places, than most would like to admit.
That realization came to the Sisters of Saint Francis in 2011, when their chapter statement challenged the religious group to understand the issue, and in turn, help the community better grasp the problem.
Sister Marlys Jax has been an active member of the group’s human trafficking awareness efforts.
“It was an issue that is in our country, in our world, in our neighborhood,” she said. “Someone needs to do something.”
Human trafficking is a catch-all term that includes those sold for sex or those forced into labor.
“Most people are really shocked that it’s this prevalent. They say, ‘oh my goodness, it really is here.'”
Atop their wooded hill at Assisi Heights, the sisters watched an impressive movement take shape.
Laura Sutherland works for Olmsted County Victim Services. She’s also a Safe Harbor Regional Navigator for Southeast Minnesota. That position was created in 2014 after the state passed a law to bolster resources for sex trafficking victims. In the past five years, Sutherland says she’s seen improvement in how the community handles this tough topic.
“Many providers take this issue quite seriously,” she said.
Sutherland leads a team that has helped about 400 survivors. They’ve trained about 17,000 people who interact with victims, from ER nurses to police officers.
The Rochester Police Department has changed in how it handles human trafficking cases in recent years.
Sgt. John Fishbaugher is a part of the department’s Criminal Interdiction Unit. He conducts undercover operations to catch traffickers and find victims in need of help.
“When it comes to traffickers, it’s all about money,” he said.
His time in the field helps his efforts to train his RPD colleagues. Last December, the entire department received an updated protocol to use when coming across a potential victim in the field. Sgt. Fishbaugher says the message is more sympathetic.
“You’re not going to jail,” he said. “We’re going to offer you this opportunity to talk to somebody. It gives them an opportunity to get out of the life.”
Sutherland says having the police on board makes helps her mission to give victims a wide choice of resources.
“I think there has been a realization, an acceptance, that this is in fact a public health issue that we all need to be working together to address,” she said.
Nisha Kurup is another person working to link survivors with life-saving connections. She works as Victim Services Manager at the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association. Many of her clients are from another country, some forced into labor.
She says a victim feels more comfortable, and might be more willing to get help, when talking to someone that speaks the same language.
“We do it hand in hand,” Kurup said. “Hold them rather than leading them. It’s working very well.”
All of these agencies come together quarterly, as part of the Olmsted County Human Trafficking Task Force. It’s a chance to see what is working, and what might need to change. Mission 21 is part of that group. Formed in 2010, the non-profit works to empower sex trafficking victims striving for a new life.
Sister Marlys is optimistic about the future. She hopes these changes will leave a lasting impact in the community.
“It’s not something we want to contain on this hill,” she said. “We want to move it beyond the hill and beyond the area.”