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Expert provides advice to local public workers on sex-trafficked children

Though there are many children who suffer the horrors of sex trafficking in the United States, expert Erin Wirsing said many never consider reaching out for help.

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Sex trafficking expert Erin Wirsing makes a list of the needs that are met and neglected for child victims while in the illicit industry Thursday at the Ramada Grand Dakota Lodge. (Press Photo by Andrew Wernette)

Though there are many children who suffer the horrors of sex trafficking in the United States, expert Erin Wirsing said many never consider reaching out for help.

There is much psychological trauma inflicted by traffickers that keep victims under submission, Wirsing said, to the point that they don’t believe that there is any way out.

“I’ve never had somebody say that ‘I’m trafficked and I need help,’” she said.

Wirsing spoke to around 70 public workers Thursday at the Ramada Grand Dakota Hotel during a training session on the circumstances surrounding sex trafficking, as well as the protocol for identifying and then working with victims.

The event was one of three in the state hosted this week by the North Dakota Department of Human Services Children and Family Services Division. Wirsing comes from the Florida-based Devereux Foundation, a health care company.

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Wirsing told The Press she wasn’t particularly an expert in how much of an issue child sex trafficking was in North Dakota. However, she said that because it is a nationwide issue, she “know(s) it’s an issue in North Dakota.”

Wirsing demonstrated there were a number of social, environmental and individual factors that contribute to juveniles ending up in the sex trafficking system. She said any child is vulnerable to some degree to falling into sex trafficking, which can be hard for some people to accept.

She said every adolescent goes through transitional phases where they start to want a relationship or are rebellious toward their parents. This, she said, is where others can potentially lure them into “the life.”

Children from broken or abusive households are also vulnerable, she said. Such individuals often run away and become easy prey.

Wirsing said 70 to 90 percent of victims have a history of sexual abuse. She said these children often reason that, since they have already experienced the abuse, they might as well use it to get something in return. Hence, they fall into prostitution.

In many instances there are signs one can use in identifying trafficking victims, Wirsing said. These can range from physical indicators -- such as bruising from violence -- to behavioral traits, such as a sense of paranoia or reluctance to make eye contact.

There are many psychological effects that result from sexual abuse, she said, including trust issues, lack of life skills and lack of sexual desire. Shame is a major emotional one, but she said many people don’t know how to talk about shame.

“It’s one of those emotions that, when we don’t talk about it, it just gets even bigger,” she said.

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One might notice signs of a domineering relationship, Wirsing said, such as a multitude of phone calls or text messages in a short amount of time. The child might keep a secrecy about where they go, and they might have a large amount of tardiness at school.

Wirsing said victims tend to exhibit Stockholm syndrome, where they protect and defend their abusers. This stems from systematic fear and submission, and victims will often initially trust those that exploit them more than helpers because the former put a lot more effort into sustaining their daily needs.

Rick Haugen, the director of foster care and in-house case management for Stark County, was one of the audience members.

In hearing all that was said, he said he figured his office could provide a heightened degree of sensitivity to suspected sex trafficking victims in order to create more of a safe environment. There were other things it could tailor for the issue, he said, but everything depends on resources.

Haugen also said that, knowing some of the warning signs, he could look back and discern some cases that were possibly related to sex trafficking.

“There are different situations that come in,” he said.

Wirsing said workers have multiple cases on their plates and cannot possibly put the same amount of attention toward any one victim.

“There’s no way that we’re going to be investing the same amount of time into this child as a trafficker,” she said.

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Wirsing said each agency that works with trafficking victims should have three key things.

First, there should be a safe space where victims have an open, nonjudgemental and confidential environment. Second, there needs to be an element of cultural competency that can adequately deal with victims of different backgrounds. Lastly, there should be an emphasis on youth development that can help rehabilitate victims.

Wirsing advised those in the audience to be mindful of being “survivor-informed” when approaching victims.

“I’m not a survivor of sex trafficking,” she said, “and I’m not going to act like a survivor because that would be disrespectful, right? But for me to be able to be effective in the work that I do, I have to be talking to people that have been there before.”

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