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Minnesota’s first shelter for child victims of sex trafficking prepares to open

Safe and Sound Shelter’s opening is one of several developments to prepare for the implementation of Minnesota’s Safe Harbor laws on Aug. 1.

The goal is to have somewhere around $3.3 million to get the Safe and Sound Shelter up and running.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

Watching the steel and cement hauled in next door to his offices in the East Side of St. Paul is cathartic for Richard Gardell. One building has already been razed to make way for a first-of-its-kind shelter in Minnesota exclusively to house children who are forced to sell their bodies. In time, an old lumber shed behind the shelter could be demolished as well to make way for a job-training center.  

Gardell has been dealing with child sex trafficking in the state in some form or another for more than a decade, first as assistant chief in the St. Paul Police Department and now as the CEO of 180 Degrees, a youth and adult services nonprofit. He’s watched trafficking victims, who average age 13 when they are first abused, fall back into the hands of their perpetrators when there’s nowhere for them to go.

“It really is a dream,” said Gardell of the Safe and Sound Shelter, slated to open in August. He’s been raising private cash to get the shelter up and running. “We’ve taken a leap of faith here.”

It’s one of several developments timed for late this summer and early fall to prepare for the implementation of Minnesota’s Safe Harbor laws on Aug. 1. The nation-leading changes will increase penalties for child sex traffickers and require all law enforcement and prosecutors to treat those trafficked under the age of 18 as victims instead of criminals. The idea is children will get the rehabilitation services they need to get out of the trafficking network instead of being locked up temporarily in a detention facility.

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But in the metro area, where prosecutors have been enforcing that rule for several years already, there’s a shortage of places for the children to go. Many wind up as runaways or in juvenile detention facilities anyway.

“The whole premise of Safe Harbor is we are not going to treat you as a delinquent or criminal,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who was one of the first prosecutors to stop treating children in the sex trade as criminals. “But that rings hollow if you don’t have that infrastructure in place to help them.”

A safe place

St. Paul Sgt. Ray Gainey, who works on the Gerald Vick Human Trafficking Task Force, said law enforcement currently works with Catholic Charities and Breaking Free, a St. Paul-based nonprofit, to find a place for underage victims.

“The dilemma is where is the best place to keep or house these victims. Is that in a shelter for their safety, or to release them back into a situation where they might run?” Gainey said. Some still end up in juvenile detention, he added, which law enforcement is trying to stop. “That’s not the best place for these kids.”

That’s where housing comes in. Typical shelters don’t serve the special needs of sex-trafficking victims, who need treatment for their mental and physical abuse. They also need protection from their traffickers, who often come trying to find them. The Safe and Sound Shelter will have full-time staff to do physical and mental-health assessments as well as therapy. Part of the curriculum will focus on breaking the victims’ bond with their trafficker.

“They have emotional bonds with the trafficker. They can be in love with them or think they’re their boyfriends. They’re often afraid they will hurt them or their family,” Gardell said. “We first have to let them know that they are safe.”

Minnesota currently only has four beds specifically set aside for victims of sex trafficking through Breaking Free. The Safe and Sound Shelter will more than triple that number with 14 more beds.

The state Department of Human Services, using $2.8 million in funding passed by the Legislature last year, is also developing another two dozen beds for trafficking victims in the Twin Cities and in places like Duluth and southern Minnesota, said Lauren Ryan, the newly appointed director of the state’s Safe Harbor program.

The funding will also pay for Ryan’s position and eight regional navigators working on trafficking issues across the state, she said. One navigator has been appointed specifically to work specifically with Native Americans in the state, a population with a high rate of child-sex trafficking.

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Five of those beds will serve as transitional housing for 16- and 17-year-olds at Breaking Free, where the focus will be getting victims back into school. “They each get their own bedroom,” said Katie Tuione, housing director for Breaking Free. “That’s really crucial for someone of that age.”

How big is the problem?

Advocates have struggled to grapple with a problem that no one can pin down in its size and scope.

In 2011, the State Court Administrator’s Office reported 614 trafficking related charges in Minnesota and 390 trafficking related convictions. But for years state law enforcement and health officials didn’t track victims as being trafficked, and many victims don’t self-identify as being part of that system.  

“That’s the biggest problem right now,” Ryan said. “We can’t tell how big this is. We don’t have a good data system and we don’t have people collecting that data.”

A look at commonly used trafficking sites like shows 200 to 300 ads of trafficked children on given day in Minnesota, mostly in the Twin Cities but also in places Duluth, St. Cloud and Mankato, law enforcement officials say. Those children are forced to have sex anywhere between 10 to 15 times a day, said Artika Roller, who runs a service program for sexually-exploited youth with The Family Partnership, based in Minneapolis. 

The Family Partnership serves about 80 to 100 trafficked children a year, Roller said, but it’s hard to track how large the problem is when some perpetrators are using social media or word of mouth.

She was part of the push to get the Safe Harbor law passed in the Legislature. The legislation is being watched nationally as a possible model for how to deal with the hidden problem of sex trafficking. Minnesota is also the only state to put funding to back up their anti-sex trafficking laws, but advocates say $2.8 million isn’t enough.

They initially asked lawmakers to allocate $13.5 million, which would fund about 40 beds for trafficking victims around the state. “The $13.5 million was a very conservative estimate of what was actually needed,” Roller said. “Housing is very expensive.”

The Safe and Sound Shelter, for instance, isn’t funded with any money from the Legislature. The city of St. Paul gave 180 Degrees about $500,000 in a mix of loans and grants to get started, but the goal is to have somewhere around $3.3 million to get the shelter up and running. Gardell has led a capital campaign for funding from private donors and foundations.

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“Over the short term we need to raise money and we are working really hard. We have a capital campaign going on to build the building and support the programing while we establish our customer base,” Gardell said. “We are not to the finish line yet by any stretch of the imagination.”