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Chaska nonprofit works to prevent sextortion, trafficking of young people

The COVID pandemic created what Jessica Bartholomew, the executive director of Chaska-based A.C.T. United, calls a “perfect storm” of isolation and screen time — the ideal conditions for human trafficking, sextortion and the general sexual exploitation of youth.

The year 2020 saw a 125% increase on Facebook of traffickers meeting youth and a 95% increase of traffickers meeting youth on Instagram, according to Polaris in a 2020 analysis of human trafficking.

“Our mission is to unite communities together in awareness, prayer and prevention to end the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children and teens,” Bartholomew said of her nonprofit.

Those statistics have Bartholomew working harder than ever to shed light on sexual exploitation — specifically targeted at youth — in the southwest metro and beyond.

Bartholomew has been working with kids, teens and at-risk communities for more than 25 years. In the 1990s, she worked with Treehouse in Chaska, a faith-based group that works with at-risk youths. She worked as a police officer for 12 years, and for part of her career she was working in undercover units dealing with juvenile sex trafficking.

“One of the largest cases I’ve worked on was impacting children and teens right here in Carver County,” she said.

Bartholomew said that for the past 10-12 years, much of the education, awareness and resources around human trafficking have been focused on “inner city and urban areas” — leaving suburbs and rural communities without that same level of education.

Bartholomew created A.C.T. United in 2015. The organization is run mainly by volunteers and a three-person board, with a couple of part-time staffers. “When we started in 2015, we were the only prevention group in Minnesota and now we are still just one of a few that focus on prevention,” she said.


“Juvenile sex trafficking, in the simplest terms, is anybody that does anything to facilitate the exchange of something of value for any sex act with a person under 18,” Bartholomew said. “That could be housing, a place to stay, food, clothes, some sort of survival need in exchange for a sex act.”

Now, as “predators and behaviors targeting youth are increasingly online,” Bartholomew feels her work is more important than ever.

“The harm, the impact and the effects of that crime are just really way more devastating than people realize,” she said. “I think people understand that the effects are probably pretty significant with sex trafficking, but even with sextortion, which is online crime, the effects are very significant.”

Bartholomew defines sextortion as when a young person sends a nude or private image and then that image is used to threaten exposure of that image or even threaten physical harm if that youth doesn’t meet demands.

She said that the top demands in sextortion are for more nude or sexual photos/videos, money, or to meet in person.


“Here’s the thing: the most dangerous geography for youth right now when it comes to these crimes isn’t a geographical location,” Bartholomew said. “The most dangerous place is that cell phone that’s in the back pocket or backpack of almost every kid and every teenager in every community.”

Bartholomew said that this happens mostly on platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, Omegle and Whatsapp, though it’s not exclusive to those. She said to be mindful of “any game or social media platform that has the ability to chat or do live video.”

“I think one of the biggest myths is that sex trafficking of our youth starts with a kidnapping,” she said. “The reality is that less than 10% of juvenile sex trafficking starts with a kidnapping. Ninety percent starts within the context of a relationship.”

Bartholomew identified these relationships as extremely controlling and isolating after a need has been identified and trust has been established, adding that young people can do this to their peers as well.

“The introduction to exploitation can be a very abrupt moment, or it can be more of a slow introduction, where sex for money, modeling for money, making porn videos for money, gets introduced, and then the threats and the violence,” she said.

The Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported a 97.5% increase from 2019 to 2020 of “online enticement” — communication with someone on the internet who is believed to be a child with the intent to commit a sexual offense or abduction.

“The secondary impact of the pandemic was the increase in online sexual exploitation,” Bartholomew said.

Even before the pandemic, data was being collected on the subject. Bartholomew cited the 2019 Minnesota Department of Health’s student survey that assesses the overall health of students in the state, which now includes a question about juvenile sex trafficking.

“They found that 5,000 high school students sitting in our Minnesota high schools are a victim of sex trafficking,” she said. “They also found that those that self-reported being a victim of sex trafficking were from every region of Minnesota.”

She added that sex trafficking and sextortion are crimes that impact all genders. When developing her programming, Bartholomew realized that in order to be the most effective in prevention techniques she needed to use inclusive language.

“The language was still girls, be careful girls, protect yourself women and girls, and we know that a third of trafficked minors in the United States are biological boys,” she said. “We know that the largest child pornography case in Minnesota that happened in 2016 was a sextortion case that targeted high school boys.”

Another local sextortion case includes Mitchell Ottinger, a former substitute teacher and paraprofessional in Eastern Carver County Schools. He victimized 42 people over several years, 23 of whom were minors. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison and 25 years of supervised release for producing child pornography and extortion in April 2022.

“That doesn’t mean, by any means, that we stop doing what we’re doing for women and girls and youth and everyone, but we need to make sure that boys or males feel just as safe and supported to come forward,” Bartholomew added.

She said that with sextortion, in particular, when kids try to block the predator or choose not to meet demands, the problem doesn’t just go away.

“We also know that when you comply with their demands that 70% of the time the demands actually get worse, so the only way out is to get help,” Bartholomew said. “We help youth, we also help families.”

To work toward prevention, A.C.T. United hosts a variety of youth educational programs, including Online S.A.F.E.T.Y. for all ages, YOUTH AWARE for teens and college students, and the #littlemebigfuture Preschool Safety Video Series.

“If we know what makes us vulnerable or at risk to these crimes, or even a whole community sometimes can have a vulnerability, a shared vulnerability, to be targeted by these crimes,” she said. “If we all know that, let’s go upstream.”

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Minneapolis restaurant Mayta’s Cafe opens up a Chaska location

Starting a new business in a pandemic is no easy task, but husband-wife duo Chamroeun Chea and Hengtaing Nelson have made it work with their restaurant, Mayta’s Cafe.

The dynamic menu of blended Asian and American cuisine, inspired by the Cambodian food the owners grew up eating, debuted in April 2020 in a storefront at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. The couple had moved back to Minnesota from Florida to raise their family.

“It’s more than just business. It’s more than just money,” Chea said. “Money is always come and go, but doing what you love and feeling like you’re doing something for the community or for the people — it makes you feel a little bit better.”

Chea cites his wife as the instigator for starting a restaurant business, as her family has a background in working in the food industry.

“Mayta in Khmer means compassion, and that’s what we’re fueled by,” the restaurant’s website states. Mayta is also the name of one of the couple’s sons.

With the Minneapolis location situated in a hospital, most of the customer base is made up of hospital staff and patients.

“Coming here just changed my perspective of life a little bit, or quite a bit,” Chea said of the HCMC location, which also serves a lot of doctors and dialysis patients. “You get to know them, you serve them, and you see them decline. It’s a real reminder to me to make the most of every day.”

Chea and various family members have also received life-saving treatment at HCMC through the years.

“It’s like home, sweet home,” he said. “This place does amazing things.”


The love Chea has for HCMC and the community he serves there hasn’t stopped Mayta’s Cafe from expanding to other locations. The Chaska site came about after Chea received a call from a friend regarding the empty storefront at Audubon Center.

“I like the location and I grew up in Minnetonka, so I have friends in Chaska, Eden Prairie, Chanhassen. It’s my area. It makes sense and I decided to go for it — and I’m glad I did,” he said. “Chaska so far has been really good to us.”

Chea, a self-proclaimed food fanatic, but also picky eater, is always switching up the menu to keep things fresh. As he gets to know the Chaska community better, he intends to adjust the menu to the tastes of the community.

“My wife does most of the recipe stuff and she can get most of the credit, but I can hold my own,” he said.

Chea’s food influences come from his mom’s home cooking and the American-style food he was introduced to and fascinated by when first coming to the U.S. in 1992. Chea was born in Cambodia and spent the first part of his life raised in a refugee camp in Thailand. He says that Nelson came to the U.S. from Cambodia as a young adult.

“I have a spicy taste in food, and I started doing fun stuff, fused Asian sauces, yum yum sauce going into wraps, spicy Caesar going into wraps, peanut sauce all of a sudden going into wraps, spicy honey mustard with hot pepper going into things, and dabbling with other seasonings.”

Fusion offerings on the Chaska menu include meals such as the yum yum chicken tender wrap, peanut chicken tender wrap, yum yum burger and peanut bacon burger. Chea also likes to serve his unique take on spaghetti.

“It’s like a Cambodian version. You’ve never had anybody putting oyster sauce, soy sauce, sriracha into a spaghetti sauce, but I do it, and [customers] like it,” Chea said.

Chea hopes to establish a reputation of “great food, freshness and quality” through his restaurant locations, which is why he and Nelson make a lot of the food from scratch.

“Me and my wife, we like to make our own sauce. Just about everything we do is made from scratch — from our sauce to our chicken, the batters, everything. Nothing is frozen,” he said. Nelson makes the egg rolls and the wontons from scratch as well.

Mayta’s Cafe, across all locations, currently has a staff of fewer than 10 people, but Chea looks forward to expanding his staff and business.

“The staffing part is very hard right now,” Chea said. “Everything you do, I want to be perfect. I know it’s hard to be perfect, but I just have high expectations of what we’re doing.”

Chea said that Mayta’s Cafe locations are “always hiring.”

“I believe that what we’re doing is a little unique, a little different and I want to share that with the world,” Chea said.