AP NEWS

Group works to combat human trafficking

October 28, 2019
In an Oct. 12, 2019 photo, Becky Rasmussen, executive director for the Call to Freedom organization, speaks to a Yankton audience about human trafficking in the region and a new resource coming to Yankton. (Randy Dockendorf/Yankton Press & Dakotan via AP)
In an Oct. 12, 2019 photo, Becky Rasmussen, executive director for the Call to Freedom organization, speaks to a Yankton audience about human trafficking in the region and a new resource coming to Yankton. (Randy Dockendorf/Yankton Press & Dakotan via AP)

YANKTON, S.D. (AP) — A girl who became caught in human trafficking lost more than her freedom.

“She was missing three fingers, which were taken by her trafficker,” said Becky Rasmussen, who has led an effort to end trafficking in South Dakota.

Rasmussen serves as executive director of the Call to Freedom organization based in Sioux Falls. She has spoken out about the human trafficking issue, including a recent message at Honor Fest in Yankton. She also spoke with the Press & Dakotan before her recent presentation.

“We define trafficking as the use of force, fear or coercion to exploit for sex or labor,” she said.

The Yankton region isn’t immune from trafficking — it’s here, now and must be addressed and stopped, she said. One solution recently began with an additional resource at a local shelter.

Yankton carries attributes that make it attractive for trafficking, she said. Major highways — U.S. 81 and S.D. 50 — run through the community and provide a thoroughfare for activity.

“You also have I-29 and I-90 near here and going across the state. People can go to North Dakota, Minneapolis or Omaha,” she said. “Where you have that kind of transportation, or the ability to transport, you’re likely to have more trafficking.”

In addition, Yankton is located near Native American reservations, which are targeted by traffickers, Rasmussen said. In those cases, tribal and other local law enforcement need to collaborate on their efforts, she added.

DRAWING A CROWD

South Dakota also hosts major events that draw large amounts of men from across the nation and world, Rasmussen said. She pointed to the Sturgis bike rally along with an event now underway for Yankton — the opening of the fall pheasant season.

“Anytime you have a large number of people come into the community, there’s the ability to create human trafficking and other criminal activities,” she said. “That’s what the traffickers look for. They bring in prospects to meet the demand.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office for South Dakota has won 80 federal trafficking prosecutions in the state, Rasmussen added. Not all “customers” come from out of state, she said. The South Dakota attorney general’s sting using an advertisement drew 14 men, of which 12 came from South Dakota.

The location for transactions has also changed beyond hotels, such as homes turned into brothels, she said. While women are usually the victims, trafficking does target men and boys, Rasmussen said.

Why don’t victims just leave their situation? “The trafficker tells them that no one will believe them, and the victims don’t know who they can trust,” she said.

REALIZING THE PROBLEM

Rasmussen admits her current work has turned into a real wake-up call.

“When we started this, we never anticipated to see the need so great,” she said. “We started this journey with 1-1/2 employees, and by the end of this year, we’ll have 20 employees working with human trafficking in the state of South Dakota.”

Recently, Call to Freedom received seven referrals of victims in one day, Rasmussen said. Even with such growing figures, she knows the needs are vastly greater.

″(Fewer) than 3 percent of trafficking victims are ever identified. Why? As a community, we’re not educated in the assessment and identification of victims,” she said. “And the victims need to have a safe place and believe they can get out of those situations.”

Call to Freedom is working to educate the community to identify situations and to ask the right questions “With awareness, there is power. But while we’re working to get individuals out of human trafficking, our other goal is to help individuals from getting into it,” she said.

Trafficking isn’t limited to sex, as it’s also used for forced labor of an estimated 21 million people, particularly immigrants, Rasmussen said. In response, Call to Freedom has hired two bilingual caseworkers to deal with the immigrant population. The organization has also hired tribal navigators and youth navigators as case managers for those populations.

“The life expectancy of a trafficking victim is seven years because of the physical, emotional and spiritual abuse,” she said. “Once you get in, it’s difficult to get out. We need the entire community informed on what to look for and working together. Otherwise, the victim will never think they will be believed or can get out of their situation.”

In some cases, trafficking has become a family business, Rasmussen said. Sex traffickers seek to satisfy a customer’s specific request, such as a particular age, race and even hair and eye color.

In a number of cases, a family member or boyfriend may “groom” a victim over a period of time before forcing them into trafficking through drugs or other means. In some cases, the “groomer” isn’t the trafficker but just the first of many rings in the system.

Sometimes, the home situation becomes a form of trafficking, Rasmussen said. She spoke of a girl whose mother went bar hopping and returned home with a different man every night. The men coerced the girl into a “tickle” game and then told her to keep it secret.

“The girl said, ‘I don’t know what my mom got out of it. I would find any excuse not to go home,’” Rasmussen said.

Also, traffickers seek out victims who appear homeless or a runaway, she said. “Within 48 hours, (victims) are pulled into the system,” she added.

The traffickers also monitor social media to locate individuals who may prove vulnerable, such as having family difficulties, Rasmussen said.

“Nobody wakes up and says, ‘I want to be a trafficking victim,’” she said. “It’s the grooming and the recruitment process.”

OFFERING HELP

In an effort to assist victims, pull tabs with phone numbers of resources have been posted in rest stops along I-29 and I-90, Rasmussen said.

The public is encouraged to watch for anything that seems unusual, she said. “But safety is a key. Don’t get directly involved, and make sure to report it to the right people,” she added.

Sources could include local law enforcement, child protective services, National Crime Stoppers or the Human Trafficking Hotline. In the case of an emergency situation, call 911.

Call to Freedom has created a video training module for first responders that helps them better understand the issue and how to assess and respond to situations.

The crime leaves its victims damaged in many ways, but one girl forgave her trafficker, Rasmussen said. She found forgiveness promoted her own healing and hoped it would lead the trafficker out of the business.

“We can reach the heart of the trafficker and break the cycle,” Rasmussen said. “If we don’t break the cycle, it will just get worse.”

Rasmussen hopes the general public sees themselves as part of the solution.

“If a community is united, it’s a powerful force,” she said. “Victims know it won’t be allowed in our community. Then we’ll be able to combat human trafficking.”

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Information from: Yankton Press and Dakotan, http://www.yankton.net/