Ahead of Super Bowl, Catholics partner to ramp up anti-trafficking efforts

| January 25, 2018 | 0 Comments

For Terry Forliti, a series of traumatic events as a teenager — being raped by her boss, her friend dying in a car accident and her parents’ divorce — spurred heavy drug use that carried into adulthood.

But Forliti was able to function — up until her own divorce, being laid off from her job with a health care company and losing her home. Admittedly an alcoholic, she also lost custody of her two children. She saw her support system crumble, along with her self-worth. And when she sought treatment, her takeaway wasn’t recovery, but rather learning where to get more drugs.

People who profit from selling others for sex are trained to spot and aggravate their victims’ vulnerabilities. Ultimately, one perpetrator spotted Forliti’s. Thus began her life on the street at age 38, segueing into becoming a victim of sex trafficking.

“This didn’t just fall on my lap, and it doesn’t just fall on anyone’s lap,” said Forliti, 56, who now serves as executive director of Breaking Free, a survivor-led organization in the Twin Cities dedicated to helping victims of sex trafficking and other violent crimes.

In the 10 days surrounding Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis Feb. 4, Forliti and others from Breaking Free will take to the streets, reaching out to women with hygiene items, food and directions to Breaking Free’s emergency shelter.

“We’re hoping we get that opportunity to give our testimony to these women,” Forliti said. “We’re not social workers, and we don’t have degrees. We’re miracles, and they are, too.”

Law enforcement officials expect an uptick in trafficking during the Super Bowl — mostly through online advertising — but Forliti said there aren’t a lot of numbers to quantify. During recent Super Bowls, officials have reported a 40 percent increase in the number of advertisements placed on popular websites selling sex, Forliti said. She added that local pimps are likely making calls to pimps from other cities, encouraging them to venture onto Twin Cities turf.

‘Everybody’s problem’

Forliti, a Catholic, explains how girls and women often become victims. Many are sexually abused at home from a young age. Family members might know of the abuse, but they often fear losing financial stability, or their lives, so the abuse continues. Girls frequently run away when they can, often around age 13.

“In the first 48 hours, they’re more likely to get picked up by a perpetrator than they are by law enforcement or social services,” Forliti said.

After being picked up, pimps will schmooze and brainwash their victims, “pitting everyone in the world against them,” Forliti explained. This recruitment strategy, she said, is part of the pimps’ control, which opens the door to initiation into the life of a sex-trafficking victim. Forliti said within the first moments of a victim’s first sexual encounter, she can be sodomized, beaten, repeatedly raped, defecated on and photographed.

“And she is going to be so broken by the end of this experience that she can’t ever function as a normal human being after that,” Forliti said. “It’s called being ‘turned out,’ and every girl remembers when they were ‘turned out.’”

In recent years, the crime’s depravity has elicited a strong response from Twin Cities law enforcement and social service agencies.

When Washington County Attorney Pete Orput received his first sex trafficking case two years ago, he was caught off-guard; he considered sex trafficking an urban problem. That case inspired him to take a pro-active approach: He dedicated a team to scour online advertisements targeting juveniles — about 180,000 to date — to conduct “guardian angels” stings. He’s helped 60 victims find necessary services and prosecuted 23 pimps. He has also spoken to thousands of people to raise awareness of the problem, conducted training for hotel staff members and shared his investigative model internationally.

“It’s everybody’s problem, throughout the entire state of Minnesota,” said Orput, who attends St. Michael in Stillwater. “Nothing changes unless people acknowledge that we have a problem.”

He describes sex trafficking as “the most exploitative crime” he’s seen in his career, adding that the issue cuts across all demographic strata.

“The wake of damage it leaves is profound — in young people’s lives, in families,” he said. “If it’s not your kid, it’s your neighbor’s kid. What difference does it make? They’re our kids.”

With the Super Bowl coming to town, Orput has staff on the law enforcement committee organized by local agencies to formulate a response to sex trafficking. He says they’ll show “an aggressive response” to online advertisements and even run their own ads to decrease the demand. The digital age has made trafficking a more ubiquitous crime, he said.

Safe Harbor, a 2011 Minnesota law that was fully enacted in 2014, has helped law enforcement and social service agencies identify and respond to trafficking victims more appropriately, no longer treating them like criminals.

A united front

Aiding Breaking Free’s Super Bowl efforts will be a dedicated group of religious sisters who’ve been steadfast anti-trafficking advocates. Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Benedictine sisters, Franciscan sisters and School Sisters of Notre Dame have been speaking at parishes and collecting money to help prepare Breaking Free’s emergency shelter for victims who are rescued during the Super Bowl. The sisters have also purchased supplies including gift cards, bedding, towels and warm clothing — some of which the sisters hand-knitted — which they brought to Breaking Free. A Benedictine sister plans to offer her services as a therapist at the emergency shelter.

Sister of St. Joseph Ann Redmond, 84, was invited to join an official Super Bowl committee of faith-based leaders about four months ago. Since 2002, she has chaired the CSJ’s Anti-Human Trafficking Working Group. She draws on Catholic social teaching in her presentations at parishes — recently, at Assumption and St. Stanislaus in St. Paul.

“Parishes have always been positive and want to do what they can,” she said. “I think we’re all concerned about individuals seeing the possibilities of their lives as God has created them. Then when you hear about young people being lured into trafficking, it negates everything of that. So, once people start thinking about it, they become passionate, too. We’re looking at the Super Bowl as a time of educating people about trafficking. … It’s part of the conscience of the rest of us.”

At DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis, students in Peg Hodapp’s Faith and Society class have learned about sex trafficking through the lens of Catholic social teaching. Hodapp invited speakers from Women’s Advocates in St. Paul, an organization that provides shelter for women and children escaping domestic abuse, and Forliti from Breaking Free. For the students to hear victims’ stories first-hand was “eye-opening,” Hodapp said.

“It’s extremely important for everyone to know [about sex trafficking], but I think teenagers are kind of vulnerable and may not know that, even if something feels wrong to them, they might think it’s OK,” she said. “We need to make it clear to them what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Students also learned how to observe warning signs. And they’ve chosen to highlight the problem for their annual Justice Week at the end of February. Hodapp said learning about the issue has compelled the students to address the justice side of the anti-trafficking effort. With assistance from the Minneapolis Police Department, the school is organizing a rally 3:30 p.m. Feb. 1 that will take them in front of the venue for a Super Bowl party hosted by the men’s magazine Maxim. The event advertises “the most beautiful people, celebs, tastemakers and the world press” with an “all-inclusive open bar” and “Maxim GoGo Girls.”

“Essentially, it’s a prostitution tent,” explained Forliti, who plans to participate in the rally. Hodapp is inviting other Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to participate.

Hodapp said it’s not a protest but will serve to raise awareness of the problem to the community and visitors. They plan to have signs reading “We are not for sale” and distribute flyers with information to safe havens.

“Now with the Super Bowl, it’s a prime place for trafficking to occur, but it’s really critical year-round,” Hodapp said, adding that Minnesota is known to be a hub for sex trafficking. “It’s critical that kids know that it exists and what they can do to protect themselves.”

Hodapp said she’s addressing everything from dating violence to sex trafficking. Given its proximity to downtown, the school is working to ensure its students’ safety by postponing events for National Catholic Schools Week — Jan. 28-Feb. 3 — so that students aren’t on campus after school and into the evening.

In the aftermath

Through her work on the anti-trafficking Super Bowl committee, Sister Ann is hopeful that advocates will be able to cover more ground through newfound partnerships with the larger faith community.

Forliti, too, is encouraged by the progress they’ve made in the last nine months of partnering with other social service agencies to share ideas, establish best practices and assist each other in helping people who’ve been sexually exploited. “We want to stop this, and we want to make a difference,” she said.

Forliti and Orput had the attention of Minnesota’s bishops in December when they highlighted the problem and showed how the Church can help combat it.

“One of the things that Terry made clear was the connection between porn and sex trafficking,” said Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens. “So, it needs to start at the beginning level of how we educate young people. But we also need to train our people in the parishes to see this, because now it’s an anonymous crime [online], even though it’s happening around us. Just like anything, we need to find ways for people to get help, even perpetrators. There are many levels [at which] parish communities could be involved.”

Bishop Cozzens said he learned how much the problem is “out of control” in the Twin Cities, even before the Super Bowl, saying that law enforcement needs the Church community to educate people and help bring an end to sex trafficking.

Forliti said Breaking Free’s greatest supporters are Catholic organizations, from parishes and schools inviting survivors to speak to classes to the work of the sisters’ year-round anti-trafficking efforts to Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis providing services to the homeless.

Bishop Cozzens said aside from awareness, the greater Catholic community can join frontline organizations like Breaking Free, and he encourages parishes and schools to invite Orput and other law enforcement officials to speak about the problem.

Orput echoes that desire, saying he’s up against “significant social issues,” citing the number of johns — from age 20 to early 60s and unemployed to highly educated professionals — who rent humans for sex.

“It’s going on, it has to get addressed, [and] it’s truly an immoral crime,” Orput said. “And learning more about it makes me confident that we as a society will be less likely to tolerate it. And that’s the start in doing something — when we as a society are so outraged.”

Regarding sex trafficking, Bishop Cozzens points to “the beauty and importance of the Church’s teaching on chastity” amid the “sickness that has affected our society since the sexual revolution.” He said the Church can find ways to help people live virtuously.

For Forliti, Orput and religious communities, the work will continue after the big game.

“On [Feb.] 5th, there will be a whole new group of people [victims] who aren’t Super Bowl-related,” she said. “This is what we do all day, every day.”


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