Washington County cracking down on sex trafficking

Residents organize to join the fight.

A specialized unit within the Washington County Attorney’s Office has recovered and provided assistance to more than 60 victims of sexual trafficking since 2016. 

Despite this, according to Kathryn Woxland, the unit’s victim service coordinator, many county residents still don’t know human trafficking happens so close to home.

Oakdale resident John Larson first learned about human trafficking in the area about six years ago after County Attorney Pete Orput presented information at an Oakdale Chamber of Commerce meeting.

“I was so agitated by this that I thought ‘I’ve got to do something about this,’” Larson said.

However, at the time there was no resident group in the county focusing on the issue, and Larson discovered there was also very little communication between the various local organizations that work to help victims and end trafficking. 

It wasn’t until two years ago that the specialized major crimes unit within the county attorney’s office was formed and cooperation was established between it and the other involved entities in the area. 

 

East Metro Human

Trafficking Task Force

According to Woxland, the unit is now being called the East Metro Human Trafficking Task Force and includes a prosecutor, a criminal analyst, a victim services provider and three detectives from three agencies — one from the sheriff’s department, another from the Woodbury Police Department and one from the Oakdale Police Department.

Woxland explained that Minnesota is known as a leader in the country because of its laws regarding sex trafficking. For example, Minnesota’s Safe Harbor Law states that anyone under 24 years old cannot be prosecuted for prostitution, and will instead be viewed as a victim and survivor.

Washington County has become a leader in the area by taking that one step further.

“Our office has created a prosecution model that is different from any model in the state,” Woxland said. “We model ourselves after programs in Seattle and Chicago where the investigations are very victim-centered.”

She explained the task force tries to take the burden off the victims by investigating in such a way that the victims will not need to testify in court.

“You can only imagine how difficult it is for anyone to have to come and testify in court, much less a victim of a crime,” Woxland said. “Then let’s say you are a victim that has been trafficked and you have been beaten, you’ve been robbed, you’ve been raped, you’ve been manipulated physically, emotionally, sexually, and then to have to face your trafficker in court.”

Woxland said the county has had success so far with its victim-centered approach and since the task force was established in 2016, it has charged 23 sex traffickers and provided more than 100 tips to metro area law enforcement.

It’s because of its victim-centered methods that Washington County has become a leader in the area and provides training to employees from several other counties as well as other community partners, Woxland said.

 

Residents unite against sex trafficking

“We do a lot of training in the community and in that training we invariably get many [residents] who come up to us and say ‘Well, what can I do? How can I help in the community?’” Woxland said.

Now she has an answer: Citizens Against Sex Trafficking, otherwise known as CAST.

CAST is a nonprofit resident action group that aims to raise public awareness, connect community members with education and support the restoration of freedom for victims of sex trafficking. CAST has a partnership with the East Metro Human Trafficking Task Force, but is its own entity and decides for itself how members can best support the fight against human trafficking.

“It’s exciting for me as someone who has been in the field of victim services for 20 years to see the community rally behind an effort like this,” Woxland said. “These cases are difficult, the subject matter is difficult and nobody really wants to admit it exists in our community, so to have a dedicated and energetic group of people who want to get involved and want to try to help in any way they can, it’s really heartwarming for me.”

According to Larson, the group’s chairman, the five-person board of directors was formed in the summer of 2017 and immediately began establishing its foundation. 

CAST is promoting awareness by reaching out to business, education, faith and healthcare communities, and connecting professionals in those fields with training. 

Larson explained the training is especially effective in the hospitality, education and healthcare fields because it helps professionals identify signs of trafficking and safely report those situations. He added that faith communities seem to be a good fit for providing support, such as collecting needed items and packing kits for victims. 

“We are really on a steep learning curve. We are trying to figure this out as we go,” Larson said, pointing out this is why the group now seeks to build its network and expand its team. 

CAST is hosting a Jan. 28 informational event from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Oak Marsh Golf Course Club, 526 Inwood Ave. N. in Oakdale. 

At the event, Orput will talk about trafficking in Washington County, and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi will talk about trafficking as it relates to the next month’s Superbowl being played in Minneapolis. Those in attendance will also learn more about CAST and have the opportunity to get on mailing lists or join the team.

Register for the event online at www.castmn.org or by emailing John Larson at jflarson69@gmail.com. There is a suggested donation of $15, and all the proceeds go to help promote the group’s awareness, education and support goals in Washington County.

 


Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or akinney@lillienews.com.

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