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U study shows dramatic shift in public perception of sex trafficking

Researchers say that shows an important shift in how people see the issue, from people seeing youth as perpetrators of sex crimes to victims of them. 

The FBI has named Minneapolis among the 13 cities in the country with the highest rate of child sex trafficking.

As part of their ongoing investigation into Minnesota’s sex trafficking industry, the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach Center (UROC) will release a new study later this week that shows a dramatic shift in public opinion on the issue.

The study looked into more than 1,500 news articles published between 1995 and 2014 that used either the terms “prostitution” or “sex trafficking.” The data shows a dramatic spike in media coverage in 2013 surrounding the issue, with media outlets overwhelmingly using the term “sex trafficking” in place of “prostitution.”

Researchers say that shows an important shift in how people see the issue, from people seeing youth as perpetrators of sex crimes to victims of them. “There’s a real shift in key terms in the articles from framing the issue as prostitution to framing the issue more and more as sex trafficking,” said UROC Director of Research Lauren Martin.

For researchers like Martin, knowing just where public opinion lies is important. Yet the data also go a long way in explaining the dramatic change in the way trafficking was dealt with as a policy issue by the state. “If our society views commercial sexual exploitation as a problem of young people doing bad things, then our response is going to be primarily criminal justice,” Martin said. “If we frame the issue differently where we see more systems [at fault], then we might focus on delivering more services.”

An early lack of support

Minnesota has the third highest rate of commercial child exploitation in the United States, according to Minnesota’s Judicial Branch. And the FBI has named Minneapolis among the 13 cities in the country with the highest rate of child sex trafficking.

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Prior to 2011, however, when Minnesota passed first passed its Safe Harbor law, which barred prosecutors from charging of minors with prostitution, many advocates said their pleas to reform the state’s laws and help victims fell on deaf ears.

Beth Holger-Ambrose, the executive director for The Link, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that provides resources to homeless and sex trafficked youth, said that back the ‘90s, there were no resources going towards children being trafficked in Minnesota. In fact, most people didn’t believe it was happening at all.

When authorities did find cases of trafficking, Holger-Ambrose said, the media portrayed the children as prostitutes who simply chose to sell sex. That attitude made it impossible to address the issue effectively, she said, and despite advocates’ best efforts to lobby lawmakers and law enforcement to do something about it, no one seemed to listen. “If a youth came to the surface to law enforcement or child protection about being sex trafficked, that youth would be put into juvenile detention and treated as a juvenile delinquent,” Holger-Ambrose said. “There was no police officer we could call who understood that these were victims.”

An overnight success, a decade in the making

In 2010, a handful of Minnesota prosecutors who were concerned with the number of trafficking and soliciting cases reaching their desks reached out to the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. They wanted to see if there was any way they could tackle the issue together. That same year, a study by the Schapiro Group revealed that each month in Minnesota, 213 girls are sold for sex an average of five times a day via internet and other escort services.

The following year, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi was sworn into office, and he and several other county prosecutors publicly announced that Ramsey County would no longer be charging juveniles for prostitution. Around the same time, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, whose Carlson Companies owned several prominent international hotel chains like Radisson and Country Inns & Suites, announced that her hotel staff would undergo new training to help identify sex trafficking in an attempt to stop it from occurring in their establishments.

Both moves brought an unprecedented amount of attention to the issue, said Mary Beth Hanson, Vice President of External Relations for the Women’s Foundation. “What they did was risky and courageous,” Hanson said.

That November, the foundation also launched their MN Girls Are Not For Sale campaign; a five-year, $5 million dollar initiative to bring attention to and bolster research and services for victims of sex trafficking across the state.

Then, in 2011, the legislature passed Minnesota’s safe harbor bill, which said that prosecutors can no longer charge anyone under the age of 18 with prostitution — although that portion of the law didn’t go into effect until 2014. “It’s pretty amazing what we’ve done in just a decade,” said Sen. Sandra Pappas DFL-St. Paul and head author of Minnesota’s 2011 Safe Harbor bill.

Pappas said the issue was first brought to her attention in 2006, but didn’t gain significant legislative traction until 2011. Even then, it was initially met with resistance, she said, particularly from rural areas of Minnesota. But because of drummed up support from advocacy groups, faith and community leaders, and county prosecutors, she said, her bill passed. “It really took a whole village to change this attitude,” she said.

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The safe harbor bill also updated the definitions for exploited youth in Minnesota’s protection codes; increased penalties for those who abused or purchased commercial sex; and directed state agencies to fund new resources for victims of sex trafficking.

Minnesota’s is one of at least 28 states around the country that have enacted some form of safe harbor laws, according to the most recent data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. But Minnesota is unique among those states, said Lauren Ryan, Minnesota Department of Health Safe Harbor Director. Most of the state’s resources around fighting sex trafficking are going directly to the Department of Health rather than the Department of Public Safety. “There was a very intended effort to put this at public health, to get a different lens and not have it solely be a criminal justice issue or a child protection issue,” she said.

The changes are a welcome one for Holger-Ambrose, who said she’s glad to finally see that more people have finally become aware of the issue and are taking it seriously. But still, she wishes it had happened earlier. “Sex trafficking and sexual exploitation have been going on for a very long time, unfortunately,” she said.