Welcome to our live chat on "Saving Bobbi," a four-part series on one Minnesota teen's descent into the dark world of sex trafficking. The series began Sunday and will conclude Wednesday. Today's live chat topic is how law enforcement is battling child sex trafficking. We will be talking with Sgt. Grant Snyder of the Minneapolis Police Department, a major character in the Saving Bobbi series, and Star Tribune reporter Pam Louwagie, who spent several months reporting and writing the series. Thank you for being here, Sgt. Snyder and Pam.
A quick word about the series: “Saving Bobbi” is about Bobbi Larson, 19, who as a teenager became the victim of sex traffickers. She and her family sought to tell her story to try to help other girls avoid the trauma she endured. It contains mature content.
Let's get started with the chat.
I've been with the Minneapolis Police Department over 17 years.
How big of a societal problem is sex trafficking? Why do the estimated numbers vary so much?
Sex trafficking is what many consider to be among the greatest human rights issues of our time. At the center of this problem is our obligations to protect children, as well as adults from exploitation by others. With regard to the social scope of the problem, we have found that lives are impacted across ethnic, racial and socioeconomic lines. This problem affects everyone.
I looked long and hard at a lot of studies to try to find statistics that seemed reliable. Experts agree that there really aren’t comprehensive, reliable statistics on this stuff. So much of it is hidden. That’s why we included the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council’s report showing that estimates on the number of underage trafficking victims ranges from 1,400 to 2.4 million. Those numbers get at the absurdity of the statistics surrounding this issue.
The vast majority of the cases we have investigated involve girls. We know that boys are being victimized as well, but for several reasons they are a much more difficult population to identify and serve. In the past year we have investigated two cases involving trafficking of boys, compared to over 50 cases involving girls.
I interviewed many experts, advocates and sex trafficking victims for this story and I definitely came away with a better understanding of how coercive it is, even when it might not look coercive at first glance. Sgt. Snyder’s change was fascinating to me in that way. I have interviewed quite a few prostitutes and exotic dancers in my career, and I have seen a lot of corresponding self-esteem issues. I can’t say it’s true for everyone selling sex, but it does seem pretty clear to me that most would rather not be doing what they’re doing.
There does exist a strong stratification in trafficking. Some victims are exploited for very little money, while others are sold for much more. In reality, movies tend to exaggerate the commercial aspect of sexual exploitation, and glamorize the money and experiences of the women.
Sgt. Snyder, do you find that some women are involved in prostitution of their own free will?
After years of doing this work, and talking with women who have been exploited in prostitution, I have never found one that believed is was a good means to make money. They have shared stories about shame, abuse, and isolation. I have never encountered anyone who was not encumbered or victimized by coercive circumstances. Bottom line: This is not a decision made of free will.
Good question. It's not one we're covering in this series. It's complicated by the fact that so many of these victims have multiple issues requiring long-term intervention for health and mental health issues. There's also the whole cost of police and courts. It becomes very complicated to estimate that cost.
With regard to the traffickers, both federal and state law allows for extenstive prison time, and our local county attorneys are quite aggressive in going after the perpetrators. For patrons, if the victim is a juvenile, it is a felony under Minnesota State Statute 609.324.
She wants to make something good out of this. From the beginning, she told Sgt. Snyder that she doesn't want other girls to go through what she went through. She wants people in the community to be aware of this.
Well, first of all, the community has the greatest ability to interrupt sex trafficking. The appropriate response is to learn, recognize and report. In the aftermath of an incident, all to often people report that they suspected, or recognized that there was a problem, but did not report. As law enforcement, we rely heavily on the public eye to learn about victims.
Law enforcement agencies all across this country are coming up with unique strategies for locating and rescusing victims. Most of our time should be spent in identification and rescue, and much of our attention is finding creative and effective ways to do that.
How has the internet and social media affected sex trafficking and exploitation?
The internet has led to an expansion of underage sexual exploitation. It has given perpetrators the assumption of anonymity and contibuted a marketing method for the ongoing exploitation of young victims.
You'll see later in the series that part of helping girls recover is showing them how the glamorous image they had been sold was a lie and they have been used. That's something for people to think about when they see glamorous images or prostitution in movies.
So is there a key factor that drives sex trafficking?
At the very basis of this problem is money and demand. Sex trafficking exists because people are willing to pay for sex, and traffickers benefit financially from it. But for the demand for victims, sex trafficking wouldn't exist.
What role to men play in the prevention of sex trafficking?
We have about 5 more minutes with Sgt. Snyder and Pam Louwagie. If you have any more questions, get them in now. Thank you.
Understand that sex trafficking is a problem with men. Men are the unique patrons of the victims. Where no demand exists, no supply is needed. Men can do a great deal to influence and create postive cultural and social discussions about victimization and commercial sex. As with many problems, it begins with a willingness to stand on the behalf of the victims.
Thank you very much. It is a priority with the Minneapolis Police Department to expand our ability to serve the population of juvenile victims. Today we are welcoming several new investigators to our Crimes Against Children Unit as part of the Department's ongoing committment to these juvenile victims.
Sgt. Snyder or Pam, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you'd like to make before wrapping up?
We are grateful to Bobbi and her parents for being so open with us in sharing their story.
This is a problem that needs advocates. We are tremendously proud of the work being done by all of our partners, both inside and outside law enforcement in this State. Stories of courage like Bobbi's give us all the strength and hope to continue.