Helping the FBI stop a girl from being trafficked
“She stood in hallway, stood there so lost...We went back and gave her one more hug." Lena Bessas, child protection social worker on the Rapid Response Team, will never forget that moment.
The young teenager had been on a bus for days, traveling with the man who was trafficking her, thinking he was taking her to the Bahamas, thinking he had lots of money.
Meanwhile, Hennepin County child protection intake got a call from the FBI.
“There's a victim of sex trafficking with the trafficker right now — on a Greyhound bus — and they are about to make a stop in Minneapolis. We have a plan to apprehend the trafficker and intervene," said the agent. They requested a social worker from Hennepin County to be with them.
Partners in safety
Child protection partners with local police to ensure the safety of children, but this situation was extraordinary because the youth involved was not a Hennepin County resident, and there's no official relationship with the FBI.
When the young teenager got off the bus in downtown Minneapolis, she was surrounded by FBI agents in black clothing. The alleged offender was brought to the ground and taken away quickly.
Lena, the social worker assigned to the case, got the call to come. “I got into a back room… There were two FBI agents with a young girl who was very quiet. Everything was very still," said Lena. The FBI agents had already started asking the young woman questions about her history – how she knew the man, where they were going, what her hopes were.
“She was honest, raw, and tired. She'd been on the bus for days," said Lena. Despite that, “She was an open book."
Lena and FBI agents were mindful not to re-ask the same questions. “We didn't want to re-traumatize her," she said. They made sure she knew it wasn't her fault. “We had conversations around – it's not you – you shouldn't be in this place. He's a very violent man. He's lying to you," she said. The girl cried and apologized. She didn't want to go home.
Lena reassured her it would be okay. “You are beautiful and deserving and lovable," she said to the girl.
They brought a change of clothing for the girl. Lena drove her to Brittany's Place, a shelter for girls who are victims of trafficking. Once the girl was settled in, Lena said good-bye. The girl told Lena and the two agents she'd never forget them.
Responding to children in need
Behind the scenes, Lena worked with the FBI on a plan to get her home. They connected with children's services and police in the girl's home state. “We explained we have a child in our care, explained the work we did, made a connection to hand the baton off," said Lena.
Though Lena will never know exactly how it all ended, she knew, deep down, the girl would be safe. Sure enough, she got word the girl made it to her home state.
“That's the process. The work I do today is done, and there will be someone else tomorrow that will take it from where it is," said Lena.
“Child protection has made ourselves available to law enforcement to come and play a part in any way we can to reduce child trauma," said Carrie Heiberg, the child protection intake worker helping with the case that day. “We're going to respond, because there's a child in need."
Resources for victims of trafficking
- No Wrong Door
- National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 888-373-7888
- The Link West Metro Navigator: 24/7 Response Line 612-232-5428
- Brittany's Place: 651-287-4801