By Elizabeth Fechter
Murphy News Service
Members of the Eden Prairie community met Wednesday for a community conversation on human trafficking led by an FBI agent. The conversation focused on what human trafficking is, how often it occurs and what parents can do to prevent their children from becoming victims.
Special agent Tim Wittman, from the Minneapolis FBI office, led the event. Before moving to Minnesota, Wittman was an agent for the agency’s civil rights unit in New York for 10 years, where they concentrated on crimes against children and human trafficking cases.
“If I’m going to call something human trafficking there is force, fraud and coercion,” Wittman said. “There’s been a lot of attention in the past three or four years and this notion of coercion has really grown, but it’s been going on all along.
“Coercion,” Wittman added, “is always based on the victims perspective, what would coerce me is different than someone who is young.”
Wittman explained that many people are brought into the United States for trafficking. He said many are first convinced that there are better opportunities for them in this country, such as restaurant jobs.
Victims usually plan to send money back home to their families, Wittman said, adding that once they arrive here they are told there is no such job, and they must comply with what the trafficker demands. Often traffickers threaten to call immigration or harm their families as a means of force and fear.
“It is an unreported crime,” Wittman said, “the reports of the cases don’t do service to the cases we don’t know about.”
Wittman was unable to give members of the audience an idea of how often in occurs in Minnesota.
”It’s a continuous problem no matter what number I give out, it may seem too small and it is very dependent on how many people there are available to investigate,” Wittman said.
When a member of the audience asked how often it occurs in Eden Prairie, Wittman responded by saying any community that has hotel rooms and an Internet connection can be a location for trafficking.
“It happens everywhere,” Andy Rohde, detective for the Eden Prairie police, said.
Human trafficking among minors has been a major topic of concern in Minnesota, and Wittman put it in perspective by saying roughly one out of every 10 ads they come across on sites, such as backpage.com, might contain victimized minors.
Backpage is a website based out of Phoenix, Arizona, that is very similar to Craigslist, where ads for prostitution are posted regularly. It is not common for customers to be looking for minors specifically, Wittman said.
Minors who fall victim to human trafficking often feel alone and are vulnerable, Wittman said, and traffickers take advantage of this to manipulate them into feeling stuck in a situation.
“They’re heavily brainwashed through multiple ways to listen to the pimps and to not trust the police,” Rohde said.
Wittman told the audience if you have a cause for concern, whether at a hotel or somewhere else, you should say something to somebody you think could handle the situation.
“A lot of times if you see someone you think is alone or vulnerable, people who ask ‘Are you alone, can I help?’ make the difference,” Wittman said.
Wittman’s advice for worried parents is to not be judgmental with their children, stating the importance of letting your child know they can come to you. By encouraging communication children have a better chance of letting their parents know when there is a problem, instead of hiding it.
As concerned citizens, Patricia Fenrick, community service coordinator for Eden Prairie, said the best thing to do is be aware.
“One thing we can do is to arm ourselves with knowledge and awareness,” Fenrick said. “The more people aware the more people will talk, and the more socially unacceptable it will be to utilize things like backpages.”
If you are concerned for someone you think may be a victim of human trafficking the National Human Trafficking Resource Center is available online at www.acf.hhs.gov/trafficking, and can be reached at 1.888.3737.88.