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‘Not in Our Town’: Panel discussion addresses issue of human trafficking

BEMIDJI — Human trafficking happens more often than many people realize, and local advocates want the community to know that.

The advocacy organization Support Within Reach held the event “Not In Our Town” Wednesday night at Bemidji High School. The event explored the issue of human trafficking and how it manifests itself in communities across the board.

“It really can and does happen everywhere,” said Michael Pittman, the regional navigator with Support Within Reach.

The event included a video featuring victims who’ve experienced trafficking, as well as a panel discussion featuring advocates from Support Within Reach and investigators from area law enforcement agencies.

Approximately 25 people attended the event.

The video featured victims’ stories. It told how they were introduced to prostitution, or exploitation in general, as well as what it took to find freedom from the life that ensnared them.

One victim explained how she couldn’t even remember how many times she’d been raped. Another said she thought about going back into prostitution to help her financial situation, highlighting one of the reasons why it may be difficult to leave.

Part of the evening addressed the issue that exploitation may not always come in commonly recognized forms. Instead, it may include victims who agree to sell themselves for a place to stay or food or other things they need to survive.

“Just because that’s not the version (we) see here doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” Pittman said of the more commonly recognized trafficking situations. “Whenever someone has a core need not being met, they are at risk for being trafficked.”

Those on the panel fielded a host of questions, such as how to identify trafficking situations and what to do about it. They also fielded more general questions, such as how concentrated the issue is in local communities.

The panelists also spoke on how social media has fueled the problem. Matt Smith, an officer with the Red Lake Police Department, held up his phone and said that a large majority of the first encounters between victims and traffickers are made online.

Heather Holden, a detective with the Bemidji Police Department, spoke about how traffickers are master manipulators, a theme that was reiterated by others on the panel.

“A lot of times victims don’t know they’re victims,” another officer with the Red Lake Police Department said. “They think it’s their choice that they’re doing it.”