A new citizens' group in Washington County aims to help community members take action against sex trafficking operations in the East Metro.
After nearly half a year of development, the Washington County Citizens Against Sex Trafficking will host its first public event at the end of January.
Their mission, CAST President John Larson said, is to promote awareness of the issue, is to spread awareness of the issue, cultivate an improved network of resources and serve as an entry point for community members to get involved.
"We live in a bubble and we have no idea of the significance, so we're trying to expose the reality of this situation," said Larson, who lives in Oakdale. "But we won't stop there — we want to connect those who are on the front lines with the resources available."
Larson serves as a board member with the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce, through which he learned of the area's burgeoning commercial sex industry several years ago during a city event where he met with members of Washington County's major crimes unit.
Now known as the East Metro Human Trafficking Task Force, the unit established by the Washington County attorney's office in 2015 pursues and prosecutes labor and sex trafficking operations.
Among its members is Victim Services coordinator Kathy Woxland, who connects victims with shelter and resources when a trafficker is arrested in Washington County.
A growing spotlight labor and sex trafficking throughout the Twin Cities area has spurred numerous invitations from local organizations and churches for Woxland and her colleagues to discuss the issue.
Each meeting, Woxland said, prompts the same response: We want to help.
"As this becomes a topic that's more widely discussed and more widely known, peoples' compassion comes out," Woxland said. "They understand that, historically, prostitution has been an attack on women."
As Woxland started compiling a list of community members eager to offer their time, skills and resources to address the problem, a citizens' group seemed like a "natural fit."
Although task force members will offer their advice and insight, CAST will operate independently of the attorney's office.
Their awareness and education efforts will focus on connecting schools, churches, businesses and hospitals with training on how to recognize signs of trafficking, how to respond and which resources are available.
The group also will develop routes to support existing resources for human trafficking victims, but Larson said he welcomes residents' ideas and input.
Community members will have the opportunity to share their thoughts and donate to CAST's efforts at a fundraiser Sunday, Jan. 28.
The event will feature presentations from Washington County Attorney Pete Orput and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, along with community leaders.
CAST strategically scheduled the event to take place a week before the Minneapolis hosts the Superbowl, an event known to coincide with spikes in trafficking offenses.
Larson said the group hopes to leverage the publicity around Superbowl anti-trafficking efforts into an ongoing conversation.
For Woxland, who routinely witnesses the lasting trauma sex trafficking inflicts, the group's launch is cause for optimism.
"I don't see the best of humanity on a daily basis, and for me to see a group of citizens who are so dedicated to this cause is beyond a day-brightener," She said. "It renews my faith in humanity."
If you go ...
What: Washington County Citizens Against Sex Trafficking fundraiser
When: 5-6:30 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 28
Where: Oak Marsh Golf Course, 526 North Inwood Ave., Oakdale
Eventgoers are encouraged to RSVP by emailing John Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org.