New process for identifying human trafficking in Olmsted County

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(ABC 6 News) – Olmsted County is joining in on the fight to combat human trafficking in southeastern Minn.

In a decision approved Tues., the county is creating a new initiative to identify these incidents and protect survivors.

From Oct. 2021 to Oct. 2022, 184 people in southeastern minn. were identified as survivors of human trafficking through Safe Harbor. Safe Harbor is a support-services organization through the Minn. Dep. of Health, however it believes the actual number of people experiencing this problem is much higher than that.

“We served 184…those are just the ones we were able to identify and serve. I can imagine that there are many, many more folks out there who have had these experiences under exploitation or trafficking or even just being at high risk,” said Andrea White, Olmsted County’s Safe Harbor regional navigator.

Of those 184, Safe Harbor reporters that 49% were between the ages of 13-17.

“Human trafficking is in the state of Minnesota,” said Rachel Pearson, a special agent with the Minn. Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s human trafficking investigative taskforce. “It doesn’t matter if you are in the metro or in the rural part of Minnesota. Human trafficking is happening.”

Olmsted County officials say they want to help survivors and it is time they took a different approach.

Historically, reports of human trafficking were followed with a sting operation from law enforcement. This uses upwards of 20 police officers at a time and a lot of resources. According to White, these stings also put a lot of pressure and responsibility on the victims and it can be traumatizing.

Now, a new, preventative inspection process will take a deeper look into Rochester’s 36 massage therapy businesses, which are a notorious hotspot for human trafficking.

During randomized checks throughout the year, inspectors will look for any indications of a dangerous situation, like evidence of employees sleeping and eating at the business. It will even use forensic lights to identify bodily fluids signifying sexual activity at the business.

“In this new approach, we are identifying the environment, rather than person who is being victimized,” explained White.

If there are red flags during these inspections, it will be brought back to a new collaborative team. This team consists of Olmsted County Public Health, the Rochester Police Department, Victim Services, the county attorney’s office and the city clerk.

The goal, says White, is to spread the initiative to neighboring areas as well.

“While they may shut down this business, they certainty could go to another community, apply for a license, open up another shop and continue to do that work,” White added.

Over the next few weeks, the collaborative team will finalize the inspection processes and are hoping to begin these inspections by next year.

The BCA’s list of possible red flags indicating someone could be a trafficking victim include poor mental health, abnormal behavior, lack of control, high risk and inappropriate sexual behavior for their age or has few or no personal possessions.

Common work or living positions that can be a sign of human trafficking include the person not allowed to come and go at will, is under 18 and providing commercial sex acts, unpaid or paid very little and only through tips, is not allowed breaks and is living and working on site.

If you feel you may know someone being trafficked you are advised to contact local law enforcement. You may also use the BCA tip line at 877-996-6222 or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 or sent the text HELP to 233733.