If you encountered someone who you suspect might be a victim of human trafficking, would you know the signs to watch for and know what to do next? Freedom’s Journey is sponsoring its annual Freedom Expo this month to raise awareness about human trafficking and educate the public about how to combat it.
“A community that’s paying attention makes it harder for traffickers to operate and easier for victims to come forward,” said Tess Franzen, founder and executive director of Freedom’s Journey.
Freedom Expo 2023 is a free event from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Jan. 13 at Hotel Alex Johnson in Rapid City. Those who attend can learn what Freedom’s Journey does to help victims and survivors of human trafficking. Additionally, attendees can learn about human trafficking in western South Dakota, including how trafficking often happens and how to reduce the risk of becoming lured into human trafficking.
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“Education is so important,” Franzen said. “When I started doing this work over a decade ago, there was no coordinated effort (in South Dakota) to combat trafficking.”
“Every step that we take to combat trafficking is helping to create a world where trafficking can’t happen and people who are being victimized are more able to come forward,” she said. “That’s why we do this expo. We really want to help the community understand trafficking because that’s the only way we can effectively combat it.”
January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. During Freedom Expo 2023, Franzen and several experts will talk about trafficking and what their agencies or organizations do to fight it.
Guest speakers will be: Nick Saroff, resident agent in charge, Homeland Security Investigations; Hollie Strand, forensic examiner for the Internet Crimes Against Children division of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office; Tanya M. Grassel-Krietlow, grant manager of the FAST Grant, South Dakota Network; Heather Knox Sazama, assistant U.S. Attorney, District of South Dakota; Mary Beth Holzworth, South Dakota Human Trafficking coordinator; and Allison Morrisette, South Dakota Murdered and Missing Indigenous Persons coordinator.
Rapid City Council president Lance Lehmann is scheduled to read the Mayor’s Proclamation declaring January 2023 as the City Human Trafficking Awareness month.
Franzen founded Freedom’s Journey in 2018. The nonprofit organization serves victims and survivors in western South Dakota and the surrounding region. The organization connects human trafficking survivors with resources they need for security, transportation, physical, medical, emotional and mental health needs.
Freedom’s Journey provides diverse assistance such as referring people to physicians, dentists, counselors and legal aid. Some survivors need phones, transportation, or help with housing, utilities or gaining job skills, as needed and appropriate.
“The more the word gets out of what we’re doing, we’ve had referrals from the Care Campus, police, health care providers, WAVI, counseling services and other survivors,” Franzen said.
Trafficking is the commercial exploitation of someone for sex or labor through force, fraud or coercion. Although each human trafficking incident is different, Franzen said there are warning signs that the public can look for that may indicate someone is a trafficking victim.
A person who is with an overly controlling individual who answers questions on their behalf, or who is unable to look you in the eye or answer questions on their own is the number one indicator that someone might be a victim of human trafficking.
A victim may not know what city they’re in, or have what Franzen describes as a scripted story that doesn’t seem to make sense. The victim might not have access to their own personal identification documents such as a driver’s license or birth certificate. The victim may seem fearful or may be under the control of drugs. Other indicators could be kids who have a second phone their parents aren’t aware of, or they have lots of cash or expensive items for no obvious reason.
Trafficking happens every day, year-round, Franzen said. Traffickers look for people who are vulnerable and find ways to build trust with their victims and exploit them, and victims can be male or female, children or adults. Franzen said Freedom’s Journey has worked with victims who were first trafficked as infants, and others who were in their 50s, plus all ages in between.
If you see someone who you suspect may be a victim, don’t try to intervene or rescue the person yourself. Contact law enforcement.
“What we advise people to do if they see something they think might be trafficking is pay attention to details. As soon as you’re able, write those details down and contact law enforcement. Don’t ever try to intervene on your own,” Franzen said. “If you try to intervene, you’re most likely placing the victim in greater danger and you may be placing yourself in danger.”
Trafficking can occur anywhere, running the gamut from big events such as the Sturgis rally to people being trafficked by their families in their own homes.
Grassel-Krietlow, one of the Freedom Expo's guest speakers, will discuss the FAST grant and the work she does. She is based in Pierre with a part-time office in Rapid City.
FAST is a special initiative designed to increase the availability of trained Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners, or SAFEs, and trained sexual assault advocates in tribal communities. Though the original scope of the project was to be the geographical areas along the Keystone XL pipeline in western South Dakota, Grassel-Krietlow said she has 45 partners statewide who are working to identify gaps in services for sexual assault victims. The initiative also works with all nine tribes in the state to address issues related to missing and murdered Indigenous victims.
During the Freedom Expo 2023, Grassel-Krietlow will give an overview of what FAST does.
“FAST allowed us to really start learning what’s happening in communities, who the perpetrators are and where trafficking starts,” she said.
Franzen said the ultimate goal of Freedom’s Journey is to help survivors live safely and rebuild their lives, and build a community where trafficking can’t happen.
“We’ve got to try to stop it,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking and it does sometimes feel like the evil is overwhelming, so you’ve got to put one foot in front of the other and do what you can do.”
Go to freedomsjourney.us for more information about Freedom’s Journey or to make a donation.