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One Loaf at a Time focuses on ways to stop sex trafficking

by Gail DeBoer

Staff writer

gdeboer@pilotindependent.com

With topics right out of today’s headlines, the One Loaf at Time Symposium on Sex Trafficking and Sexual Violence returned to Hackensack and Walker April 25-26 with a new documentary, inspirational speakers and informative workshops.

The first night’s film, “I  Am Jane Doe,” took an audience of about 200 at Bear Pause Theater into the dark world of teen sex trafficking via the website Backpage.com.

The second night, featured speaker Rachel returned to her alma mater, WHA School, to share her compelling story of sexual abuse and manipulation, how she broke free from an abusive relationship, and to hold frank discussions with teens.

“I Am Jane Doe”  tells the stories of three middle school girls, ages 13-15, and other ‘Jane Does;’ how they were lured by traffickers into virtual slavery; and how Backpage.com helped pimps sell them on the Internet.

(“It was like shopping on Amazon,” one ‘John’ said. According to the film, one of every seven men in the U.S. say they have bought illegal sex.)

After months of rape and abuse, the traumatized girls were found by their determined mothers and rescued. What followed were lawsuits and court cases pitting the moms and their attorneys against Backpage.com’s  highly-paid legal team. Each case ended with the courts deciding Backpage was not liable for what happened to the girls, due to a loophole in federal law.

Backpage’s attorneys argued that Section  230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), written in 1997 when the Internet was young, protects websites that host content placed by others from being responsible for those postings. But while the lawsuits were unsuccessful, they led to a Senate investigation.

In January 2017, Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer, founders Michael Lacy and James Larkin and other executives appeared before Congress but refused to answer questions, citing the Fifth Amendment.

In a video shown after the film, Sen. Amy Klobuchar announced that on April 11, 2018, Congress passed and the President signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and backpage.com was shut down.

FOSTA amends Section 230, making it easier for federal and state prosecutors and private citizens to go after platforms used by traffickers, like Backpage.com.

“We need to stop protecting the perpetrators,” Klobuchar declared. “Sex trafficking is the third biggest form of illegal trafficking, behind drugs and guns.”

Ferrer has since pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate prostitution and money laundering and will cooperate in an ongoing California prosecution of Lacy and Larkin, who pleaded not guilty.

The post-film Q&A session featured Jeanine Brand, Cass County prosecutor; Ryan Fisher, Cass County Sheriff’s Investigator; and Allison Burkman, Support within Reach Regional Navigator.

Noting that Klobuchar “stole his thunder” when she announced Backpage.com’s demise, Fisher said 82 percent of the website’s revenue came from online prostitution.

“This was a success; but you need to keep up your guard,” he cautioned.

Brand anticipates other websites will challenge FOSTA at the Supreme Court, saying it violates the First Amendment right to free speech.

“In all cases where Backpage won, your constitutional right to free speech trumped everything else,” Brand continued. “We need to get back to what the founding fathers intended.”

How do we change this if we don’t change the demand for sex with children? someone asked.

“We changed the way we used to look at driving while drunk when Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) got involved,” Brand responded. “We can change the way people look at sex cases.”

What actions can citizens take? another wondered.

Education is the first step, Burkman said. When children leave their homes, it’s often because a ‘need’ is missing in their lives. “Watch your kids; check their social media,” she cautioned.

Earlier on Wednesday, attorney Jenny Sincavage with Best Buy Inc., met One Loaf at a Time presenters and organizers.

She and colleague Tom Kramer are working to set up a pro bono clinic in the Twin Cities for adult victims of sex trafficking, offering free access to limited legal services to help them gain employment and housing and escape future trafficking.

Sincavage wanted to get a sense of what is going on in Greater Minnesota to stop trafficking, learn how she can help and make contacts with other advocates.

The second night Rachel, a poised, articulate young woman, again told the story of how, over several years, her boyfriend used sexual coercion, assault, violence and isolation to take control of her life.

“Unhealthy relationships don’t start out that way,” she began. “I use this as an opportunity to educate, inform about the signs and tactics that perpetrators use.”

She uses the term ‘perpetrator’ intentionally “because they committed a crime against others;” and the word ‘victim,’ “because it implies something criminal was done.”

“But I am also a survivor!”

Perpetrators target people with vulnerabilities; gain their trust; fill a need in the person’s life; isolate them; abuse them.

They maintain power and control through isolation, threats, shame, intimidation, denying blame, privilege, economic abuse and other tactics.

All this “rewires the victim’s brain” and they go into survival mode, similar to PTSD or Stockholm syndrome. Victims come to believe that what they’ve been conditioned to do is normal.

“I’m often asked if I knew something was wrong,” Rachel related. “Yes, but understanding the scope of it took awhile. But tiny seeds were being planted; little moments; until suddenly, it all clicked, and the brain starts to re-wire.

“But when you push back, the perpetrator senses it and gets violent.”

It took a year but Rachel did escape from the destructive relationship. She lost her home, her possessions, her bank account, her vehicle, even her beloved dog; but she made it, with help of friends and especially her family.

It’s been five years. Rachel now works as a Sexual Assault Advocate in her community, helping others who are going through what she did. She’s reconnected with her family and has essentially reclaimed her life.

“We need to have these conversations,” she urged the audience of around 150. “Educate your kids. Choose not to live in fear; acknowledge that it happens, but it can be empowering. With education, we can catch more perpetrators.

“Victims don’t just survive — they thrive.”

Before Rachel’s talk, Linnea Dietrich, co-organizer with Lynnette Tripp of the One Loaf at a Time Symposium, introduced Christina Bowstring of the Leech Lake Family Violence Program and The Red Shawl Project.

Violence presents itself in many forms and has a destructive effect on all aspects of life; but it is a learned behavior, and it can be unlearned, Bowstring said. The Red Shawl reminds women of solidarity, healing and honors and remembers the victims.

After Rachel’s presentation, attendees could choose one of three workshops.

Kelly Felton, West Central Minnesota Regional Prevention Coordinator, talked on how to identify skills, experiences, relationships and behaviors that help youth develop into successful adults, plus how to identify supports youth need to succeed.

Rachel led a frank, open dialogue about her story and topics of interest to teens, assisted by WHA Social Worker Bryana Cook and Support Within Reach sexual assault advocate Marcy Nelson.

Also participating at the workshop were representatives from the 100-member Sartell High School StAT (Students Against Sex Trafficking) Club.

Allison Burkman, Safe Harbor NW Regional Navigator with Support Within Reach led an informative discussion about how online access and the Internet have changed how kids interact with each other and the world, including difficult topics like sexting and sextortion. Parents and other adults learned about dangerous apps and websites and the risks they pose.

“I continue to be so impressed with our community and how interested and supportive everyone has been … from the presenters to donors to the audience,” Dietrich said. “Our hope is that through these efforts, victims of sexual crimes will find some healing by feeling the love and understanding of our community.

“This year Lynnette and I wore shirts that said, ‘We’re all in this together’ which is the truth … We care, and we can do better.”

“Last year was raising awareness and this year, we focused on what we can do,” Tripp added. “This year the three break-out sessions really fulfilled that mission. I do believe that all change comes from extraordinarily-ordinary people saying, ‘Enough is enough!’ We should all embrace the question posed by the film:

“What if that was my child?”

To stay informed on future events offered by One Loaf, visit the website, www.oneloafatatimeorg or the facebookpage, www.facebook.com/groups/oneloafatatime/.

To support their mission, “a north country free from the threat of sex trafficking,” mail contributions (checks payable to One Loaf at a Time) to OLAT, c/o Linnea Dietrich, 4405 Buxton Road NW, Hackensack, MN 56452.

Gail DeBoer

gdeboer@pilotindependent.com