Catholic Herald staff
In July 2014, a Catholic Worker house opened in Duluth. Designated as a safe haven for human trafficking victims, Hildegard House accommodates three live-in volunteers and four guests.
The facility is an example of how members of the Duluth and Superior communities are rallying around victims of human trafficking, many of whom pass through the area because of the docks, close proximity to Native communities and highway access to the Twin Cities and the Canadian border.
The Lake County Sex Trafficking Task Force is another local organization working to combat the problem. Founded in 2013 by Sue Hilliard and Marlys Wisch, the group educates community members on the basics of trafficking – what it is, how to recognize victims and how to respond.
Hilliard, Wisch and Paulette Moreland, a newer addition to the task force, gave an overview of child sex trafficking to the Catholic Daughters of Charity Jan. 20 at the Golden Inn, Superior.
“It’s everywhere. Sex trafficking is everywhere,” Hilliard said, leading off the presentation.
A $9.8 billion industry, second only to illegal drug trafficking in this country, the industry preys on vulnerable children. An estimated 100,000 U.S. children are prostituted every year, many of them racial or ethnic minorities, runaways and victims of domestic abuse.
On average, children are between the ages of 12 and 14 when they are first exploited, according to Hilliard, but some are as young as 9 years old. Thirty-three percent of kids who run away are contacted by traffickers, also called “johns” or “pimps,” within 48 hours of leaving home; 60 percent of victims know their predators and are lured into enslavement with promises of love.
Indigenous girls are prime targets, Hilliard continued, and many kids are being trafficked to the oil fields in North Dakota right now. When the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition interviewed 105 Native trafficking victims in 2011, more than half were from the Duluth area.
Besides the physical dangers of prostitution – abuse, STDs, drugs, etc. – the lifestyle also deprives girls of normal social, societal and educational development, Hilliard added. Victims often have no personal or job skills, no financial accounts or other means of supporting themselves, no social network and no home.
“At that point, her childhood has been taken away from her,” said Hilliard. “Nothing she learns after that is normal.”
When she speaks before community groups, Hilliard’s hope is the audience will learn to recognize and report potential trafficking situations. Victims might be young, malnourished or abused girls standing alone on the street – they often have few possessions, are unaware of the time or date, avoid eye contact and are afraid of police.
Hilliard advises against trying to make contact with victims – pimps are usually watching nearby, and communication can lead to more abuse – but she encourages everyone to report detailed accounts of such instances through a national human trafficking hotline, 888-3737-888.
Hilliard also called on community members to treat prostituted people with love, and to write to politicians and newspapers to educate others about the problem. Volunteering, donating money and supporting anti-trafficking coalitions are also ways to get involved.
“Talk about it,” she added. “Make sure that people know that sex trafficking is a crime, and it’s happening all around us.”