With the hope of combating the issue of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation in a new way, the Superior City Council on Tuesday, March 2, created the Commercial Sexual Exploitation Commission.
The special committee will include one city councilor appointed annually by the council president and five community members appointed by the mayor. The commission members will be confirmed by the council and serve three-year terms to champion policy reform to prevent commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking and support the survivors of exploitation.
Among officials' goals is to have survivors of sexual exploitation or trafficking serve on the committee.
“We can’t move forward with our goals if we don’t have survivor voices leading the way,” said Tatiana Bergum, a Superior native and Safe Harbor program coordinator for North Homes Children and Family Services in Duluth.
Bergum worked with Superior School Board member Laura Gapske to put together the proposal for the council to consider. Their goal is to create a trauma-informed response to trafficking in Superior by researching the local impact, providing training and building relationships with agencies and organizations to help survivors.
Gapske first became aware of the issue working overnight in a local shelter more than a decade ago that served victims of sexual assault. After that, she started researching the issue.
“This is happening in our community,” Gapske said. “This is an issue that is under the radar. People don’t necessarily know what to look for ... or what to do.”
Superior has implemented a trafficking response team, but the goal of the new commission is to build off the work already being done by law enforcement, child protection, mental health and victim services agencies, Bergum said.
Research and data need to be collected that reflects an accurate picture of the issue and its impact on residents.
A 2011 Minnesota Safe Harbor law protects youth from prosecution for prostitution and provides grant funding through the Minnesota Department of Health to help youth and survivors, Bergum said.
Similar legislation was introduced in Wisconsin in 2019, Gapske said, and she’s been working with area legislators to find out what’s happening with the bill.
“I think what we need to do is something similar to what Duluth did,” Gapske said. “If the city of Superior can come together and say we’re going to put together a Safe Harbor ordinance … we can be more progressive by being proactive on it.”
The Safe Harbor ordinance and other protections are an important piece, but the commission will also develop specific outcomes that will eventually require funding and staff for the community’s response, Gapske and Bergum said in an email to the Telegram.
Bergum said a question on the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey asked if students traded sex or sexual activity for something of value and revealed 1.4% of students answered yes. The results showed that Native American and Black students disproportionately answered yes to the question, she said, as did transgender students and those who questioned their gender identity. However, the survey also revealed boys and girl were equally vulnerable to trafficking.
“We need to think about how we can best serve our youth,” Gapske said. “So that’s something I’m hoping this task force can address if this is approved tonight.”
Mayor Jim Paine said while law enforcement can and does address the issue in Superior, the commission would address the key missing piece — policymaking.
Sexual exploitation and trafficking have been a part of the work Nicole Thole, sexual assault program coordinator for the Center Against Sexual and Domestic Assault, has done advocating for the victims of sexual violence over the last 2.5 years. She commended Bergum and Gapske for bringing the proposal forward and encouraged councilors to support it.
The measure passed unanimously.