We are again learning of details of a person being accused of recruiting and using young teen girls for sex trafficking and exploitation. The recent case involves a person with key political connections and that also potentially involves a college student alleged to have helped him.
While this case has generated more public and media attention, exploitation and trafficking happen far too often in Minnesota. The majority of cases happen below the surface of daily life for most of us.
We sadly see this happen on a regular basis. Our organization, 180 Degrees, runs the largest shelter for sexually exploited girls in the state of Minnesota. Since 2015, we have served more than 600 young teen girls each year who are victims of these horrific crimes and acts. The numbers go up each year.
At Brittany’s Place in St. Paul, we help girls as young as 12 years who have been purchased for sex. These girls who are traumatized by rape, coerced by violence, swindled by the promise of money, abused physically and emotionally, come to us day and night seeking refuge from their traffickers.
Girls as young as 14 are forced to perform sex acts on middle-class white men, in order to stay in a van as their only place of shelter. We see 16-year-old girls whose boyfriend promises them the latest hairstyle, a cellphone, in exchange for having sex with his clients.
Vulnerable because of their age, and often experiencing poverty, family instability, and homelessness, these children are swindled by the promise of safety, love, and emotional connection. Their abuse starts with deliberate emotional manipulation and soon becomes coercion by violence. Introduced to drugs as a means of fostering control, they become drug dependent using drugs to cope with the horrors of sex trafficking.
When specific instances create media attention, people often are shocked, disgusted and think this doesn’t happen in their world. The truth is that 1.4% or at least 5,000 of Minnesota teens reported on their 2019 Student Survey that they have traded sex for something of value. These are real lives, and each individual person becomes a victim.
Last year, 180 Degrees served girls in shelter and outreach programs from all over Minnesota to help them escape tragic abuse. They needed medical services, access to counseling, physical safety, healthy nutrition, reengagement in school and work to provide hope to every girl who crosses our threshold.
Many times, the damage is deep. Severe anxiety, depression, eating disorders and fear have overtaken these girls as their abusers have manipulated them to get access to their bodies. Helping the victims recover is hard and unrelenting because in many cases the victims are children. They often live in a veil of silence in society, are fearful, lonely, and scared for their physical safety.
In a state where for too long we have only focused on the things that make this a special place to live, we cannot afford to not “see” or recognize that for others life is traumatic. Sex trafficking is not just something that happens somewhere else or only on a random basis. It is something that happens across our state in almost every community.
Our challenge is to not just be upset but to recognize and accept the place we love so much has a tragic and horrific challenge to address. It requires us to not step back because of the horrific details of each case but to instead come together to make a real impact.
This is work our staff and volunteers are committed to doing every day. The recent headlines again show us, unfortunately, how much more work there is to do.
Dan Pfarr is the CEO of 180 Degrees. He formerly held significant positions at The Bridge for Youth, Bolder Options, and Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He has an MSW in clinical social work from the University of St. Thomas/College of St. Catherine and a BA in Social Work from the University of St. Thomas. In addition, Dan is chair of the state-wide Mental Health Protocol Team (Safe Harbors), board president for of the Youth Collaboratory (formerly MANY), a national youth advocacy organization, and a member of the National Advisory Council for the Forty to None Project of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund.
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