The Minneapolis Police Department is investigating 20 active cases of juvenile sex trafficking, and in every instance they say, the young victims were marketed and sold on the Internet via Backpage.com.
“There are kids right now in the public library, with their pimps, making dates,” City Attorney Susan Segal told members of the Minneapolis City Council on Thursday. “Within the first 24 hours that kids are on the run, they are approached by pimps.”
Since the beginning of the year, Minneapolis police have been working with other law enforcement units to crack down on adults involved in the sex trafficking of juveniles.
So far, nine adults have been arrested.
The juveniles involved are not arrested but are treated as victims, instead. That policy follows a 2011 change in state law that requires that those under 16 involved in prostitution be treated as victims. Previously, they could be charged as criminals.
“This is unique for us because we tend to focus on suspects, but this is victim-centered,” said Assistant Chief Janee Harteau, who will succeed Chief Tim Dolan when he retires at the end of the year.
The nine arrests include the first case in which the customer of a prostituted juvenile has been charged with a crime. Harteau said the man was tracked down via emailing and text messaging he did at the crime scene.
“When he was interviewed, he said, yes, he told the girls they looked too young and, yes, he went ahead and had sex with them,” said Harteau.
Charges against pimps and customers involved with those under age 16 are felonies, which can result in 20 to 25 years in prison, she said.
In Minnesota, the average age of a girl entering prostitution via sex trafficking is 12 to 14, but victims in Minneapolis are older, 15 to 17, according to Commander Amelia Huffman of Criminal Investigations.
She says she has no doubt that younger girls are involved, too, but they have yet to be identified.
It starts with an ad in Backpage.com that often includes the words “new to town,” code words that Huffman says usually means the prostitute is a teenager. She also says that selling sex online is just as easy as selling your old car.
“Your customer base knows where to come,” said Huffman. “All the ads are there. It’s like a smorgasbord, and it’s very customer-friendly,” she said.
On Thursday, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution asking Village Voice Media to cease the “adult services” supplied by Backpage.com. Council members also added the sex trafficking issue to the city’s state and federal legislative agendas.
Backpage.com is owned by parent company Village Voice Media, which has refused many requests from law enforcement, attorneys general and religious organizations to shut down the adult service.
Village Voice Media claims to monitor the site closely, and its general counsel, Liz McDougall, argues that the site actually helps authorities to track down those exploiting children through records of financial and credit card transactions.
An informal work group, made up of law enforcement personnel and prosecutors, is seeking a solution to the need for a service network for juvenile victims of sex trafficking.
Dealing with sex trafficking, however, can be complicated. Both Huffman and Harteau, for example, paint a picture of high-risk victims who don’t necessarily want to be rescued.
“Most are runaway youth,” said Harteau, “and the trafficker is their protection.”
“How to shelter these juveniles after law enforcement has intervened in the prostitution situation is really a significant problem,” said Huffman, who explained that facilities like St. Joseph’s Home for Children in Minneapolis are not attractive to the teens and have no programs focused on girls who have been involved in prostitution.
“Oftentimes, it’s just not the right fit, despite the fact that everyone is very well-intentioned and wants to provide service to the girls,” said Huffman. Many of the teens, who have already run away from home, also run away from institutional care, she said.