Getting sex trafficking victims to safety

Nikki Beasley, director of programming at the sex trafficking victims service Breaking Free, sits in the lobby/living room of Breaking Free in the Midway neighborhood. Beasley said the issue of sex trafficking in the Twin Cities is “bigger than anyone could imagine.” (Patrick Larkin/Review)

With the exposure of an East Side prostitution ring, what type of help is available to young women caught in the middle?


Jennifer Gaines was stuck in the cycle of prostitution for 28 years.

It wasn’t until 11 years in, when she was busted for working as a prostitute, that she began to gain perspective on her situation. Part of her sentence included a workshop called “WHISPERS,” which was a precursor to Breaking Free, a resource center for victims of sex trafficking.

There she realized “a lot of brainwashing had happened” to her, she said. She began to recognize that her life in prostitution “really wasn’t a choice.” She saw that she had been preyed on as a young, vulnerable girl after she ran away from home, she said.

Finding herself in a position where she had no job skills and only a sixth-grade education, she felt stuck.

But she’s begun to find her way.

Lately, she’s been working as an intern at Breaking Free. She said it’s helped her build a resume and gain work experience. She’s been receiving services from Breaking Free for 17 years, and is hoping she will eventually be employed there as a full-time paid staff.

She said Breaking Free was the only place she felt safe as she was trying to leave the sex trade.

Not your average investigation

There were at least ten young female victims of sex trafficking identified in the case that opened up on April 10 against the Washington family. Many were barely 18, and the youngest was 15. Police and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office charged the two Washington brothers, two of their uncles, and one female accomplice with sex trafficking crimes, following a thorough, multi-faceted investigation.

In one victim’s statement recorded Nov. 16, 2012, she said that the brothers “prey on young women who are mentally slow and/or vulnerable and recruit them into prostitution.”

Police tracked the predatory group’s practices spanning nearly two years, from September 2010 to July 2012.

The case that was not typical for St. Paul Police.

“We don’t normally conduct investigations like that,” Sgt. John Bandemer said, referring to the data-intensive and patchwork nature of it. Bandemer is the head of the Gerald Vick Human Trafficking Task Force at the St. Paul Police Department. 

Police matched victims’ statements to a complicated string of findings including cell phone records, credit card records, and information pulled from adult websites like Authorities said such records-intensive investigations are only possible with grant money from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.

The grant enabled police to see a larger picture of the Washington family’s alleged sex-trafficking operation, and allowed them to connect disparate elements. “We didn’t have enough with any one specific case,” said Bandemer.

Being victim-centered

Compiling this case also “was made possible by the police department’s victim-centered approach,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.

In terms of having a victim-centered approach “St. Paul has been ahead of the curve,” said Heather Caillier, marketing director at Breaking Free.

The city has seen “a lot of positive achievement” in combating sex trafficking, Caillier said. But, she added, “there is still a lot of trafficking going on” in the area.

When victims of sex trafficking end up at the St. Paul Police Department, police do their best to comfort them, Bandemer said. In their mind, these women are first and foremost victims, forced against their will to become prostitutes, he said.

Police aim to “make sure they are safe and feel safe,” Bandemer said. “We’re there to gain some trust.”

Often, establishing trust involves referring victims to social services.

In the Washington case, “the St. Paul Police Department worked closely with Breaking Free with respect to the victims,” Choi said.

One of the victims has also been working with Catholic Charities, which performed an initial assessment and helped the victim with basic needs, including finding housing and changing her phone number, said Hemlal Kafle, director of the agency’s anti-human-trafficking department.

Breaking Free

The women who receive help from Breaking Free have almost unilaterally been “coerced, brainwashed, threatened,” said director of programming Nikki Beasley, and “stripped of any type of humanity.”

So Breaking Free provides a range of services to the victims, including counseling, job training, health care, and perhaps most importantly, housing.

“Housing is very, very crucial,” said Heather Caillier, marketing director at Breaking Free. “If they don’t have safe housing, they’re just right back out on the street.”

Breaking Free offers transitional and permanent housing to sex trafficking victims. They have two transitional houses, as well as a two-building apartment complex for permanent housing. They’re one of the only organizations in the country to provide permanent housing, Caillier said. The demand far outweighs the availability -- the waiting list for permanent housing is currently 40 people long.

Caillier said many clients come in without a larger picture of how prostitution works. So they usually enroll in a 14-week course called “Sisters of Survival.”

SOS examines “sex trafficking as a slave-based system, the impact it has had on victims’ lives, and issues related to addiction and recovery,” according to the Breaking Free website.

Caillier recalled one victim at the shelter telling her, “I didn’t consider what I was doing prostitution.” The victim’s boyfriend had been trading her for sex in exchange for money and services. In the victim’s mind, she was just helping her boyfriend, Caillier said.

Working with police & service agencies

By far, the majority of Breaking Free and Catholic Charities’ clients are referred by police.

Police bring some sex trade victims to Breaking Free’s door rather than to jail, Beasley said.

Bandemer said referring the victims to safety and services helps police establish they “have their best health in mind.” The victims often “don’t know what’s coming to them” and worry about prosecution, he said.

Gaines said the way police handle things now is a marked improvement.

“(Police) used to treat us so badly,” she said. “Now they’ve got a different approach.”

“They see us as actual people,” she said, and in turn “we see the cops as non-threatening.”

“It’s hopeful,” she added. 

Hemlal Kafle said the victim from the Washington prostitution case who came to Catholic Charities “was very hesitant” to work with them. He explained she was scared -- a service organization offering help can seem similar to a pimp, in that they say “Hey I can help you out” and make suggestions to the women.

“They cannot tell whether I have a good intention or not,” he said. “That’s where the development of trust is so vital.”

At this point the victim from the Washington case “has not said yes or no to more counseling.” But, he added, “I believe that in the next couple of months the story will change. Slowly, but surely, she will come forward.”

Once victims feel safe, he said, they are typically receptive to services, and also are more likely to come forward and talk with police.

Kafle spoke of the importance of working with police -- by doing this they are able to help identify other potential victims, and “catch the bad guys” he said.

“If we only focus on victims and not try to find bad guys, pimps will continue to exploit,” he said.

In the Washington case, Bandemer said some of the victims’ statements helped them find other women, who allegedly were also coerced into prostitution by the uncles and nephews.

Bandemer said that helping police construct a prosecution case can serve as a form of empowerment for the women. Sometimes they come forward “so they have some ownership” of the legal process, he said.

But, the department doesn’t “want to re-victimize them by going over it again.” So they try to cover as much ground as they can without the women having to relive their experiences multiple times.

“Johns,” the men who buy

What often gets overlooked in prostitution cases is the men, Caillier said. “People forget that there are men out there purchasing (sex).”

Bandemer seconds that. “Addressing the demand ... is just as important” as arresting sex traffickers, he said.

But while men are part of the problem, Caillier said they “are a part of a solution” as well.

It may be that they just need to receive proper education. Often, men are “under the impression that it’s a victimless crime,” Caillier said.

St. Paul Police and Breaking Free tout the “John school” as one way of addressing this.

Police conduct “John stings” and book men for soliciting prostitution, and as part of their sentence, the men have to go to John school, Bandemer said.

The John school is an intensive, eight-hour course which “forces men to become re-educated” about prostitution, Caillier said. The program, which started in 1998, now sees about 25 men a month. In all, over 1,000 men have gone through the John school, Caillier said.

Bandemer said the men in the class are presented with this moral dilemma: “You wouldn’t want your daughter to experience prostitution, yet you feel OK doing this to someone else’s daughter.”

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at

The scope of the problem

About 90 percent of Breaking Free’s annual 400 to 500 clients come from the Twin Cities area, said Nikki Beasley, director of programming at the sex trafficking victims service.

A 2010 study by the Shapiro Group found that in Minnesota at least 213 girls and young women are sold for sex an average of five times per day through the Internet and escort services.

Such statistics are not comprehensive, Beasley said, explaining that sex trafficking is “prevalent and so underground,” and because of that it’s “difficult to capture the true scope” of the problem.


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