Safe Harbor raises awareness on sex trafficking in southeast MN - KTTC Rochester, Austin, Mason City News, Weather and Sports

Safe Harbor raises awareness on sex trafficking in southeast MN

Laura Sutherland, Safe Harbor Regional Navigator. Laura Sutherland, Safe Harbor Regional Navigator.
Kevin Torgerson, Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson, Olmsted County Sheriff

Olmsted County has the third highest incidence of youth sex-trafficking in Minnesota, behind Hennepin and St. Louis counties. An expert on the criminal industry was invited to speak at a parent-community education series at Byron Middle School. 

The event was held to raise awareness about the issue and aims to shift the view of sexually exploited youth as delinquents to viewing them as victims. 

Laura Sutherland, the Regional Navigator of Safe Harbor led the candid talk and says social media are largely to blame. Safe Harbor provides supportive services designed to heal the trauma experienced by Minnesota’s sexually exploited youth.

Traffickers are no longer limited to luring victims on the street and are increasingly using social media as a gateway to contact vulnerable youth and sell them into sex work. Oftentimes reaching hundreds or even thousands of potential victims on platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Kik, Tagged and Twitter, with WhatsApp and Snapchat.

Sutherland says traffickers look for people who show emotional vulnerability online. Even something as simple as posting sad emojis or sharing that you've had a bad day. 

There is a stereotype that only men are kidnapping young girls and entering them into the world of sex trafficking. Sutherland wants to dispell this idea because it only tells the story of a small percentage of those exploited. 

Both sexual exploitation victims and traffickers come from the entire spectrum of race, gender, sexual orientation and economic status. 

"This is one of the largest criminal industries in our country, and because of that, there is a lot of people who are engaging in it," said Sutherland. "We have seen in Olmsted County both men and women acting as traffickers or predators online. We've seen students doing this to other students. Sadly, sometimes family members engaging in this with their own family," said Sutherland. "After the talk tonight, and hearing some of the real cases that occured here, reinforced parents the importance of their role and looking out for the safety of their son or daughter online."

Sheriff Kevin Torgerson of Olmsted County says traffickers engage in a process called a "grooming period" a practice of relationship building online over a period of months, getting potential victims attached before they're taken to a place where they can be taken advantage of. 

"This is about trying to prevent victims from getting there and giving them ways to protect themselves. And, go after the people causing these problems. Our officers are getting more in tune with the signs of exploitation...who's their friends, where's their family? Or if they seem they're with people who don't seem quite connected with them," said Sheriff Torgerson.

Law enforcement and Safe Harbor has many resources available and wants victims to know help is just a phone call away.

The Crisis Response line is 1-844-CRISIS2 or 1-844-274-7472 or visit

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