Human Trafficking Awareness Month an effort to open community members’ eyes

Published 10:00 pm Monday, January 15, 2018

For buyers, 30 to 60 miles is the sweet spot.

According to a University of Minnesota study released in August, this is the typical distance Minnesota buyers travel away from home for commercial sex.

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Located at the junction between Interstate 35 and Interstate 90, Albert Lea is easy access, Strength and Dignity Inc. founder Jennifer Lloyd-Benson said. According to a 2014 indicators study with the Department of Justice, analysis of 2004 traffic volume along major interstates

and on and off ramps identified that the volume of daily  traffic exceeded the population of Albert Lea.

“It does happen here,” Lloyd-Benson said. “It doesn’t matter what some people say. It does happen here. If they would look, they would know. If they would talk to the right people, they would know. If they would open their eyes, they would see.”

Albert Lea Police Department Detective Deb Flatness said this is the purpose of Human Trafficking Awareness Month: to open eyes.

“We have learned over the course of these past few years … that prevention is key,” Flatness said.

On Dec. 26, Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr. proclaimed January Human Trafficking Awareness Month in Albert Lea. This is a nationally recognized month, and Lloyd-Benson and her husband, Russ Benson, have been showing documentaries related to human trafficking for four years.

This year, Strength and Dignity is showing the documentary “I am Jane Doe” on Thursday. The event was originally scheduled for Jan. 11, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, but was rescheduled due to weather. The movie will be followed by a panel discussion with Flatness, Freeborn County Commissioner Chris Shoff, Country Inn & Suites general manager Heather Lee, regional coordinator for southeast Minnesota Safe Harbor Laura Sutherland and Lloyd-Benson herself.

Benson said he thinks the movie showings have helped increase awareness in the area.

“It impacts people when they see this,” Benson said. After previous events, Benson said attendees asked many questions.

This month, Strength and Dignity also hosts two self-defense classes for women. The first was Saturday in Northbridge Mall. The second is Wednesday at Riverland Community College in Austin.

Because of $1 donations collected from several local businesses, the self-defense classes are offered for free. Lloyd-Benson said some businesses donated more than the $1 they asked for. These donations also covered last year’s self-defense class, Lloyd-Benson said.

“We are teamed up with so many different organizations and people,” Benson said. “We’re not in this alone.”

Several churches in the area are tuned in to the work at Strength and Dignity and some help supply care packages for victims of human trafficking that Lloyd-Benson delivers when she receives a call from the jail or the court.

While this is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, Lloyd-Benson said it is year-round work. Flatness said they are working with local hotels and restaurants to educate employees on warning signs of potential trafficking, and that the police department does receive tips from these sources.

But despite this help, Lloyd-Benson said awareness within the community is still a battle.

“It’s tough,” she said. “You know, it is really tough. So many believe it is just happening in the Cities, but it is not just happening in the Cities. It’s rural areas, because rural areas are not looking for it.”

Nonetheless, Lloyd-Benson said once people learn the red flags, their eyes are opened. Hers were.

“When I first learned about this, I didn’t want to keep silent,” Lloyd-Benson said. “And when it does happen, I don’t want to sit there and think, ‘I should have done something.’” 

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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