St. Joseph’s Parish in Amery is hosting a workshop on human trafficking and sexual exploitation on Wednesday, Sept. 13, at 6:30 p.m. The event is being offered free and to the general public as a community awareness night.
“Sex trafficking is present in our area,” Fr. Jerry Harris, pastor of St. Joseph Church, affirmed.
Presenter Ashley Moore of C.A.S.T. (Citizens Against Sex Trafficking) works with the organization, which serves the Twin Cities metro area and western Wisconsin. The region is one of 13 regions in the United States with disproportionately high rates of child sex trafficking. C.A.S.T. seeks to empower communities to help end sex trafficking by offering awareness and response training.
Through education, awareness and collaboration, the nonprofit uses three primary tools. Prevention, “teaching people how to protect themselves from being exploited and changing the culture to create a community where exploitation cannot exist or thrive,” is first.
Second, intervention involves removing victims from trafficking situations and supporting them through a recovery process. Third is restoration, which provides victim services and provides support to survivors in overcoming challenges after leaving the exploitative situation and in building a healthy future for themselves.
According to C.A.S.T., the average age of entry into the commercial sex trade in the Twin Cities region is 11-14 years old. Among homeless children, it takes on average less than 48 hours of being on the streets for them to be approached for sex.
More than 5,000 Minnesota middle and high school students admit to being sexually exploited; the national average for youths having sent or received a nude text by the age of 14 is 42 percent.
In a letter promoting the event, Fr. Harris offered more local statistics: There are active human trafficking cases in every county of Wisconsin. For 25 percent of youths, nude texting occurred before the age of 12. He added, “There is also no statistically significant difference between faith and secular communities, meaning this is just as common in faith-centered communities.”
Children can be trafficked from their own homes through the internet, he said, and the average age of exposure to soft porn is 8 years old; at 10 years of age, children are often first exposed, usually through a peer’s phone, to hardcore pornography.
The priest iterated the urgency for parents to take an active role in monitoring their children’s use of cell phones.
“As a pastor, I see many parents being in denial that there could be human trafficking of their youth. Cell phones have their place, but with parental oversight.”
He shared the example of parents who waited until their daughter was 16 to give her a cell phone, and it was one that did not have internet access – calls and texting only. He stressed the importance of keeping phones in a common area at night with limits on usage and parents openly monitoring their child’s activity to stay connected to who they’re reaching out to, who is contacting them and in what ways that might affect their mental health and well-being.
“There is no need for any young person to be texting at 2 a.m. These guidelines were not made up by me,” he said. “They were created by experts,” who acknowledge that cell phones are addictive. “The bottom line is that by more oversight and conversation with your child, you could be saving their life or lessening any anxiety they may have.”
Fr. Harris shared the tragic personal experience of knowing a young man in a former parish who experienced sexual exploitation when he sent a picture of himself to someone he thought was a girl. When it turned out to be an adult wanting to blackmail him, the young man didn’t know how to handle the situation or who to turn to for help. His story ended with death by suicide.
He offered a similar story that made national news of a male teen from the Upper Peninsula in Michigan who inadvertently got involved in a “sextortion” scheme with a man in Nigeria. That teen also died by suicide. These realities have motivated the priest to offer this program for parents and older teens in the community.
What Fr. Harris has witnessed is “gut-wrenching to say the least. God bless all you parents you love, care and guide your children to grow to be respected and healthy adults.”
The event on Sept. 13 will offer education on learning the signs of human trafficking and ways to helpfully prevent and respond to this exploitation in the local community. Visit castmn.org for more information.
“We need to be aware and educated and get involved. It does not have to be this way,” Fr. Harris concluded. “We can end sexual exploitation when we work together.”