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Legislators consider plans to help minors caught up in sex trafficking

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
100,000 children in the United States are exploited each year for prostitution.

Issues involving sex and kids tend to grab peoples’ attention. A current proposal inching through the Legislature, to expand and fund support for young victims of sex trafficking, intertwines these issues and seems to have broad bipartisan support. Yet it is too early to be complacent — legislators voted on related issues two years ago and gaping needs remain in the support system for trafficking victims.

The so-called Safe Harbor bill (Senate file 384) builds on measures adopted in 2011 to protect sexually exploited youth in the state. It seems self-evident that protecting kids from sexual predators is worthwhile. But the bill is not yet a shoo-in.

bauer portrait
Courtesy of Jeff Bauer
Jeff Bauer

Some have raised questions about funding in these tight economic times. The current proposal expands the scope of the existing law and provides funding for a more comprehensive network of support services to the tune of about $13.5 million over two years — with about $9.5 million to come from the state and the remaining funds from private investment and the federal government.

Not everyone is convinced sex trafficking is a problem in Minnesota. “There’s a lot of denial about this issue,” says Jeff Bauer, a public policy expert at The Family Partnership, a social services organization lobbying for the bill.

But a little education on the issue — something that Bauer and other supporters of the Safe Harbor initiative, notably The Advocates for Human Rights, the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, social service groups like Breaking Free, and county attorneys, are focused on at legislative committee hearings this month — reveals compelling arguments in favor of the bill.

Builds on earlier legislation

The proposed legislation builds on an original Safe Harbor bill signed by Gov. Mark Dayton in July 2011, which changed the state’s approach by defining prostituted children as victims rather than criminals. The Advocates for Human Rights, which issued a recent report on the Safe Harbor initiative, said the 2011 bill reflected “a sea change in how sexually exploited youth are treated in Minnesota.” Without adoption of the current proposed legislation, though, that earlier bill will be largely ineffective.

“Safe Harbor does no good if there’s no treatment or housing” for victims, says Terry Williams of the Women’s Foundation, which funded a significant portion of the planning process for the current legislation.

Action on the bill is important for a couple of reasons.

First, the problem of child sex trafficking is real. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, about 100,000 children in the United States are exploited each year for prostitution.

Bauer claims that the sex trafficking of minors is “happening in every corner of our state.” But too often it is a hidden crime, which “happens in dark corners and on the Internet,” he says. A 2010 study found more than 120 Minnesota girls under the age of 18 prostituted on the Internet and escort services.

Nikki Beasley, program director at Breaking Free, says the typical victim of child sex trafficking that her agency sees is a 15- to 18-year-old girl who has been manipulated, often by someone she knows and loves. “It’s an issue that knows no specific demographic,” says Beasley.

Her agency reckons that of the 8,000 to 12,000 women and children sold for sexual services in Minnesota, 85 percent have been raped or molested before the age of 18.

Currently, too many minors fall through the cracks between support services, creating a revolving door of victims who are repeat users of those services. Minneapolis Police Sgt. Grant Snyder recently told a legislative committee about “a little girl from northern Minnesota” who, he said, he had “rescued” three times in 45 days.

Second, a cost-benefit analysis reveals that funding early intervention programs to prevent child sex trafficking more than pays for itself. A 2012 report published by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, based on research by academics at the University of Minnesota and Indiana State University, found that for every $1 in cost for early intervention to prevent sex trafficking of girls in Minnesota, there was a return of $34 in benefit.  

Using what the authors called “conservative best estimates” on the issue, they concluded that spending on prevention is more than recouped because it eliminates so many costly “harms” to individuals (and, by extension, society) of child sex trafficking — from post-traumatic stress disorder to HIV/AIDS, unintended pregnancies, abortion, arrests, court hearings, foster care, chemical dependency treatment and foregone income tax revenue.

State Sen. Sandy Pappas, who co-authored the proposed bill, told colleagues at the statehouse this month the proposal represents “not only a moral imperative but a sound investment for the state of Minnesota.”

Key provisions

So what, exactly, does the legislation propose? It is a multi-pronged bill, including the following key recommendations and expenditures (The Advocates’ recent report provides further specifics):

  • Build, renovate and operate shelter and housing for sex-trafficked youth ($8.5 million).
  • Establish a fund to provide therapeutic services or sex-trafficked children ($2 million).
  • Create and fund positions to manage and administer the system, including a statewide director, six regional “navigator” positions and 14 grant-funded youth street outreach positions ($2 million).
  • Create a training fund to ensure that law enforcement and others that might encounter child victims of sex trafficking have the training they need to identify victims, as well as investigating and prosecuting traffickers. ($750,000).

The bill also expands the definition of minor victims of sex trafficking to include 16- and 17-year-olds, something that the 2011 law failed to do (it limited protection to children age 15 and under). The gap that currently exists not only is an inconsistency in Minnesota law, but also does not follow international guidelines on the treatment of minor victims.

The goal, proponents of the plan say, is to make Minnesota a model for the nation in treatment of minors trafficked for sex. The Advocates for Human Rights and the Polaris Project report that only 11 states currently have safe harbor laws, and they vary considerably. New York was the first state to adopt such a law, in 2008.

But most states have not acted on the issue and, Bauer notes, the U.S. juvenile justice system fails to comply with international guidelines on child protection. “We treat little kids like grown criminals,” he says.

The success of the proposed system will hinge on more than social service agencies. Police departments, bus drivers and hotel staff are among the groups being trained to identify victims and help them get the services they need. Hotels, motels and strip clubs are hubs of trafficking activity, but often difficult to implicate in the process. Attorneys general from across the country have shown support for closing down Internet services like Backpage.com, which is frequently used to advertise minors for sex, but the owners have resisted shutting down that highly lucrative business.

Even with the steps proposed in the current legislation, sex trafficking of minors will not disappear. The proposals can, however, make a real difference in the lives of victims. Much of the proposed legislation builds on a pilot project adopted by Ramsey County, whose county attorney, John Choi, told legislators this month that child sex trafficking is “one of the greatest human rights atrocities happening right before our eyes.”

Breaking Free puts a human face on the trafficking issue, and says success stories do exist. Beasley shares the story of a former trafficking victim she calls Amy (not her real name), who turned to the agency for help. Amy moved into Breaking Free’s transitional housing program in 2012.

Since then, she has found and kept a full-time job, started community college classes, and transitioned into a permanent housing program run by Breaking Free. She consistently attended meetings of a support group called Sisters of Survival, has reconnected with her family, maintained a stable relationship with friends and attends church on a weekly basis, according to Beasley.

Since being in the program, Beasley says, Amy “continues to progress and never fails to amaze us at Breaking Free.”

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